Of the wide range of body modifications and piercings, cartilage piercings (in their many variations) are some of the most common mods outside of basic ear lobe piercings. But they are a unique experience in comparison to having an ear lobe pierced, so as a newcomer to piercings (or a veteran who simply hasn't tackled the upper ear region), you may be wondering what to expect when you get a cartilage piercing. And frankly, you're wondering with good reason. Researching any body modification in advance is a critical part of the process, and it is in this initial stage that you'll separate whether you simply admire cartilage piercings on others, or if you're really committed to investing in one for yourself.
For many people, tattoos and piercings become an itch that must be scratched, and in my opinion, getting a cartilage piercing is like the gateway drug of the piercing world. Sure, ear lobe piercings are where most of us start, but a cartilage piercing is big. It's intimidating, it's bold, and it's that first step above and beyond the usual, as far as piercings go. Once you've crossed that line, the leap to other piercings is much less daunting, and after a few piercings, the pain of a tattoo doesn't seem half as bad.
However, just like no two people will experience getting a tattoo in the same way, nor will they experience getting a cartilage piercing the same way. But here are a nine parts of the process that are fairly universal.
1. You May Experience Anxiety Beforehand
Breathe. If your heart is beating out of your chest and your palms are secretly sweating, don't stress. You're about to have a hole punched in your body — feeling a little anxiety around it is entirely natural. I rather notoriously turned green just before my first piercing. In any case, there are some questions you should be asking yourself.
Are you going to a professional with a good reputation? Is that professional using a needle instead of a gun? While many people have perfectly fine experiences getting their cartilage pierced at places like Claire's, the process of using a piercing gun is considerably more traumatic for your body than being pierced with a needle — in the hands of a trained professional, that is — and some states have even made piercing guns illegal.
Are they using stainless steel, titanium, or other Association of Professional Piercers (APP) compliant jewelry? Then you're probably in really good hands. Ask your piercer any questions that you might have about the process and the piercing in advance, and if you feel comfortable with them, then relax, and know that they have your best interest at heart — it is, after all, their job.
2. You Won't Hear A Crunch (Unless You're Under The Gun)
The needle used by a professional piercer is, according to LIVESTRONG, quite sharp and most commonly hollow, allowing the piercer to work with speed and precision to puncture your skin and cartilage. The she/he will insert your jewelry using the end of the hollow needle. Years ago, if you opted for a department store piercing, they would use a piercing gun, and you would hear a rather shocking crunch as your new stud was forced straight through your upper ear. But piercing guns are not designed to pierce through cartilage, and are actually banned for use by the APP because they pose sanitation concerns and cause tissue damage.
3. You Might Be Surprised By The Lack Of Initial Pain
This is especially true if you opt for needle instead of gun. But having once experienced the piercing gun route, even that hurt far less initially than I expected. Personally, I think a cartilage piercing is on par with the very first part of a tattoo line, or just above having an earlobe pierced. It's equatable to having a cat jump on or off of your lap, accidentally digging in with one particularly sharp claw. You'll survive, and the initial pain probably won't be much more than aggravating. But, your newly pierced site may swell, and that's when you'll notice it most, as a dull ache or slight throbbing. That's good though — it keeps you from forgetting it's there and assaulting it with a hairbrush.
4. It Takes A While To Heal
Here's where the difference between cartilage and earlobe really comes into play. Ear lobes have a fair amount of blood flow, thus they heal pretty quickly (they're right up there with tongue piercings when it comes to healing speed). An ear lobe piercing generally heals in about four to six weeks. Your new cartilage piercing? It could take between three to six months, sometimes even longer, especially depending on the piercing type. That's a huge difference, and there's not a lot you can do beyond maintaining good hygiene and care, monitoring the healing, and dealing patiently with the discomfort.
5. You Shouldn't Change The Jewelry Initially
I know you're itching to get that sweet new ring in, but you don't want to rush it.
Unless there is an issue with the size or material of your jewelry, don't change it until your piercing is fully healed. Cartilage piercings heal slowly internally, and if you remove your jewelry prior to the cartilage being stable, you run the potential of your body rejecting your piercing, healing improperly, or becoming infected.
6. Sleeping Is Gonna Suck For A While
Probably the greatest downside you'll face during the process of normal healing is the inconvenience that comes from not being able to sleep on your new cartilage piercings. Say goodbye to snuggling up on your side. From personal experience, I can tell you that sleeping on your freshly pierced cartilage hurts.
7. You Have To Keep It Clean
Obviously, right? Well, it's not quite as simple as soap and water. Cartilage piercings require a saline solution, which your piercer may provide, or you can purchase one at a drugstore (but avoid contact solution). Gently clean each side of your piercing with the saline solution and a cotton ball or pad twice a day, and follow any additional instructions your piercer may have provided you with.
8. Your Body May Reject Your New Piercing
You obviously love your new cartilage piercing(s). Unfortunately, your body may not. This can happen for a few reasons: allergies to the type of metal in your jewelry (nickle is a prevalent allergen for many people, which is why Titanium jewelry is optimal, as it is essentially nickle-free), incorrect piercing placement, infection, migration, etc. There is also a condition known as hypertrophic scarring, which cartilage piercings are relatively prone to.
According to a survey of medical literature done by Dr. Shari Welch, there is a 22 percent infection rate for body piercing overall and a 34 percent infection rate for cartilage piercing. So, as you can see, proper care and monitoring of the healing process is essential.
If your piercing site develops a bump, begins to move toward the edge of your cartilage, or is showing signs of infection, contact your piercer, or go back in to have the site assessed as soon as possible. The scarring can be stopped if identified quickly, however, if your piercing is migrating, it may need to be removed, and infections need to be dealt with immediately to prevent septicemia, but a professional piercer will best be able to help you address both of those potential scenarios. If you experience rash, fever, intense pain, or vomiting, in addition to the complications listed above, please, visit an emergency room.
9. Once You Heal, You Might Be Hooked
You made it. Through a few sleepless nights, dull aches, and a rigid cleaning schedule, you've gone four to 18 months without any real issue, and now your piercing is healed! You're probably feeling pretty accomplished (as you should be, this is a rite of passage), and more than a little proud of your sassy little hole. You might find yourself pushing your hair back from your ear a bit more frequently, searching salons and the internet for all sorts of shimmery new (titanium) jewelry.
Chances are after all is said and done — a few months after everything is healed, you may just be thinking of what to get pierced next.
Images: Jen Schildgen; Courtesy Brands