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The Difference Between a Cartilage Ear Piercing and Earlobe Piercing

Our ear piercing content is written by Ariana R. Komaroff, DNP, FNP, IBCLC, Family Nurse Practitioner.

There are so many different types of ear piercings available! It is important to understand that piercings in different parts of the ear can have very different piercing techniques, outcomes, and aftercare processes. Setting expectations ahead of time, and doing proper diligence on the type of ear piercing you want will ensure a better ear piercing experience, and better outcomes. 

A Quick History of Ear Piercing Practices

Ear piercing practices date back to approximately 5300 years ago. This is supported by evidence of a mummy known as Otzi the Iceman, a man who lived during the Copper Age, a period of the late Neolithic. It was discovered that his ear lobes had piercings in them. 

It is also proven that the Egyptians of ancient times had ear piercings, as evidenced by the holes found on the ear lobes of King Tutankhamen’s mummy, a pharaoh of Egypt in the 18th Dynasty (1334-1325 BC). 

Over the centuries ear piercing has gone through many transitions and today, piercing of the ear has evolved so much that today, almost every part of the ear can be pierced. 

Ear Piercing Practices Today

Basic ear lobe piercings are the most common location for body piercing. However, aside from the earlobe, the most common piercing modification is a cartilage ear piercing. There are 12 types of cartilage piercings; tragus, anti-tragus, helix, snug, rook, daith, outer conch piercing, orbital, forward helix, industrial, auricle, and transverse lobe piercings. 

We will focus on the piercing of the helix cartilage or high ear piercing of the pinna. The pinna or auricle is the visible part of the ear that resides outside the head. The auricle is composed of a plate of elastic cartilage, a thin layer of fat and connective tissue supplied by numerous nerves. Cartilage is harder than skin and softer than bones. The helix is the prominent rim of the auricle and a very popular location for cartilage piercings. This is often called an upper ear piercing or high ear piercing. 

Cartilage and earlobes not only look and feel different, but these body parts are different. Ear lobes have a good amount of blood flow and the piercing site heals quickly. The ear lobe site heals in approximately 4-6 weeks. 

By contrast, the cartilage has an extremely limited blood supply so healing is slower and in contrast to the ear lobe, it may take 3-6 months to heal; some people may need as long as 6-12 months for their cartilage to heal fully. The ear cartilage will stay tender for up to one year after piercing. 

Ear Cartilage Piercing Aftercare

Maintaining excellent hygiene and care in addition to monitoring the healing process and managing any pain is the main take-home point in cartilage ear piercing. The aftercare regimen is basically the same for earlobe or high ear piercings (see our first blog on caring for your ear piercing). The primary difference with cartilage piercing aftercare is, unlike with earlobe piercings where you will turn the earring a full 360 during your daily cleansings,  not to twist the jewelry as this can cause scarring or make the cartilage slower to heal. 

According to medical research, there is a higher complication rate associated with high ear piercing or cartilage piercing. The complications can result in poor healing, infection and cosmetic deformity if infection is not treated early and aggressively. 

Modality and Cartilage Piercing

The next consideration when researching cartilage piercing is the modality of the piercing. Spring-loaded piercing gun versus sterile touchless cartridges versus needle. 

For years it was thought that piercing guns promoted infection, shattered cartilage, and disfigured the ear. There is some evidence to support the claim that piercing with a spring-loaded piercing gun can shatter the cartilage. However, recent medical studies have shown that piercing guns may not be as detrimental as once believed. 

Sterile touchless cartridges and needles work very similarly, by applying manual pressure. With sterile touchless cartridges, the earring itself pierces the ear, whereas with a needle, the earring needs to be pushed through after the needle has pierced the ear.

It is now becoming evident that any piercing, by sterile touchless cartridge, spring-loaded piercing gun, or needle, can have negative consequences if the piercer does not perform the procedure properly and does not use sterile technique. Thus, prevention of post piercing perichondritis (the medical term for inflammation and associated infection of the pinna) should focus on other factors such as hygiene and aftercare. 

There is a lot to consider when choosing the type of ear piercing that is right for you. There is no doubt that certain types of piercings can appear lovely, inspiring, interesting, and bold, allowing each person to express themselves and make a statement.

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