Self-embedding disorder among teens

A new study by radiologists reports on teenage girls embedding needles, glass, and other objects in their flesh. While subdermal implants are nothing new in the realm of extreme body modifications, the researchers at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio suggest that the increasing number cases they've seen are actually a form of self-injury similar to cutting. From the Chicago Tribune:
Personnel at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, report extracting 52 foreign objects that 10 teenage girls deliberately embedded in their arms, hands, feet, ankles and necks over the last three years, including needles, staples, wood, stone, glass, pencil lead and a crayon.

One patient had inserted 11 objects, including an unfolded metal paper clip more than 6 inches long...

The study, presented Wednesday at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America in Chicago, is the first to report on this type of self-inflicted injury among teenagers, the researchers said. They call the behavior "self-embedding disorder."

Dr. William E. Shiels II, the study's principal investigator and the hospital's chief of radiology, said that uncovering the behavior was unexpected but that researchers are now hearing about cases in other cities. The hospital recently set up a national registry to track incidents and conduct research.
"Radiologists uncover, label new teen affliction" (Thanks, Gil Kaufman!)


  1. I stapled my thumb once with one of those large pistol-like staple guns. At first, I didn’t feel anything: the staple went clean in through the pad of my thumb, straddling the bone. I looked at the pad and I could see the back of the staple. No blood. I looked at my nail and I could see two little grey dots behind it. Hey cool. I showed a friend!

    So after showing some more friends, I tried to pull it out. The pain was incredible. Utterly unimaginable pain from my thumb. And by the time I got it out, there was a *lot* of blood.

    Kids – just say no to staple guns.

  2. Anyone know the reason for this kind of behavior? I mean, other than the “need to feel pain just to have something to feel” cliche.

    A crayon? Really??

  3. I got the uptight low down hebbie jebbies reading that. I have a needle meets flesh phobia and that made my heart jump, my skin crawl, and my toes tingele.

  4. If you’re already queasy, don’t read this:

    We had a patient who stuck safety pins into her anal sphincter and then snapped them off to make them harder to remove.

  5. know what’s a real laugh? Blasting two fingers together with a framing nailer. The hysterical part is when the bits of copper wire that hold the spikes together on the coil or stick get caught when you pull out the spike. Breaks the ice at ER parties, major construction site LULZ. Remind me to tell ya the chainsaw story (both of them)

  6. I once impaled my hand on a shard of sheet metal (in through the base of the hand near my wrist, out through that space between your fingers) attached to a heating duct on the roof of a 35 story hotel during a summer construction job. Had to cut off the pipe and hold it in my lap while I was taken to the hospital. Also ruined the 2 years, no accidents, safety record of the job site. It was my first week.

    Somehow I managed not to sever anything important.

  7. #4, from the article:

    All the cases in the Ohio study involved girls living in foster homes, group homes or mental health facilities. Many had experienced or witnessed physical or sexual abuse, and most had been diagnosed with depression, anxiety or other mental health problems.

    1. Do we have a term for when the Munchausen-by-proxy perpetrator gets the victim to start doing the abuse herself?

  8. In Soviet Russia, Nail bites YOU!

    (sorry, couldn’t resist…)


    I believe that this is along the spectra of disorders similar to cutting and certain forms of masochism (er, the non-sexual variety) and caused by early physical abuse. Sad, but not surprising…

  9. As a kid, I used to participate in competitions to see how many pins we could penetrate our flesh with at one time – generally without drawing blood, or, if bloodrule wasn’t called, flinchrule was. Bloodrule was self-explanatory- if you didn’t insert the pins right, you’d draw blood. Flinchrule- You were out if you whimpered or looked uncomfortable, and if there were suspicions, you had to pick something up with said hand, or be given a high five.

    You’d slide a straight pin in along the pad of your thumb- that was the easiest- and fingertips- a little bit harder- so that it came out with a millimeter or so of skin holding. End result? Self-impalement you could impress (horrify) the girls with.

    I once spent an hour putting straight pins into my palm and digits until the underside of my hand rippled with a flat sheet of metal like Colossus’ skin, blood drops rolling merrily along the shifting paths of metal.

  10. Hail, Takuan. Have you perhaps heard of the Bullet ant manhood rite, what with the sleeves of biting ants and the arm and the paralyzing pain?

  11. As a child I was convinced that I had a small pebble embedded in my forearm. It didn’t frighten me, though, and thankfully I had the sense not to rip up my arm to dig it out. Occasionally I would poke my arm and wonder how it had gotten in there.

    I still have a small, almost imperceptible… thing… there. Obviously it can’t actually be a pebble, but then wtf is it?

    @#12, I don’t think so. It’s definitely a sign of severe mental illness, but this kind of thing is painful and gruesome enough that nobody would do it solely to get attention.

  12. can’t find it but there’s a hilarious video on Youtube of kids standing in army ants to show off.

    Still, nothing worse than sitting through sunday school.

  13. #2 – I was once using one of those powerful staple guns when it jammed, as they often do, and I flipped it over to investigate the channel underneath that holds the staples for a jam. I casually noticed that I was holding the firing point of the gun under the palm of my hand below my thumb. About the time I thought to myself “Gee, I shouldn’t be pointing that part of the gun at any part of my person just in case it decides to fire.” BLAM! the darn thing went off and stuck a staple ‘to the hilt’ in my palm. It wasn’t powerful enough to penetrate anything solid but it hurt in a manner totally unbecoming of its diminutive size. I laugh about it now because I was standing there contemplating that I was holding it in a bad configuration if it should go off…at precisely the moment when it went off.

  14. Stupid-ass emo kids. Why jam staples and pieces of completely inert metal into your body when you can be implanting microchips, biochips of various derivations, and otherwise overcoming the hideous pain of being human by becoming a cyborg?!

    I mean, come *on*…if your girlfriend breaks your heart, don’t stick a pin in your eye, for the love of the Other Gods–plug a serotonin/dopamine regulator unit into your brain stem and just shut off your emotional capacity.

  15. Avraamov; Upon further inspection, I do declare you are not a shaven and bejeweled version of Avram. My apologies.

  16. I think this is more similar to atemnophilia (a body dysmorphic disorder that’s generally got a sexual component but not always) than Munchausen syndrome.

    Pretty interesting set of behaviours. But it’s *super* common for people to have comorbid mental disorders, so it’s very difficult to isolate out whether this is all attributable to something new or perhaps some of the symptoms are the slightly disturbing combination of maybe depression and the dysmorphic disorder or whatever else.

    It is telling too, the comment about the study group highlighted by #11

    Funny thing about atemnophilia though is that the majority of patients who have any amputation get phantom limbs for some time. About 80% get it – depends what you get amputated, more nerve endings damaged usually means more likely you’ll get the whole phantom thing happening. But it is kind of ironic.

  17. Tenn @27, a do a double-take myself whenever I see Avraamov’s name go by. I’m not used to having other people around with the same (or a similar) name.

  18. As a person who has twice sewn through a finger with a sewing machine, let me join those who’ve already said:


    Poor kids.

  19. Vorpelsword, it’s probably just a cyst, a growth of hard dead tissue, probably benign, maybe you should get it (professionally) removed but if it does not bother you, why bother?
    As to the self-mutilatory behavior, my feeling is that some aspect of self-image is not quite in gear, or rather the gears of self-image somehow aren’t meshing…but trying to figure other people’s motivations frequently baffles me, like those of the “Commandos” of Mumbai.

  20. As these discoveries were “unexpected” it stands to reason that the behvior of insertion is not a plea for help or attention – but that they did this to themselves in secret, and ’twas uncovered by the radiologists with some surprise.
    This makes these cases more “interesting”: it’s not as clear-cut (no pun intended) as the self-biting/cutting/hurting cases are…there’s no public display here, which makes the behavior more ‘internal”, I guess. But still related to self-image, a mis-alignment of the boundaries of self, IMO. The subjects need help, regardless of their silence: they are harming themselves. That this fact is discovered by accident by the radiologist does not alter that fact.

  21. Boingers

    A lot of the folks I meet in the ER who cut are not there for the cutting. They have other illnesses or accidents or whatever – reasons to be in the ER unrelated to cutting.

    The cutting serves as a stress reliever for the ones I’ve spoken about it with, including a coworker who cuts. Many “cutters” hide their actions from others, and do it privately. I think once you are forced to have a psychiatric evaluation once or twice you tend to hide the behavior but keep doing it for the comfort it brings.

    I try to treat the cutting with the same attitude I treat bitten nails or other stress relief behaviors that are not dangerous to other people – advise on the safety and ask if they want to talk about it or want to change it. I try -but sometimes it’s too oddball not to flinch a little.

    I’ve only seen a coupe people who self-embed (terrible name, it sounds like you stick yourself in something…), and both were intentional harm, not like described in the article, and ended up very sick.

    I assume I’ll now see more as it becomes trendy.

    the FiatRN

  22. #29 Derek C. F. Pegritz “Why jam staples… when you can be… otherwise overcoming the hideous pain of being human by becoming a cyborg… shut off your emotional capacity.?”

    In 1974 a pre-med student was found dead (? near-dead?) in his dorm room. If dead, not sure how they reconstructed the story. I remember they found open medical textbooks. He was troubled by sexual urges, so he decided to sever his vagus nerve somewhere down in the abdominal area. But, turns out it’s a tricky operation to do on yourself in a dorm room.

    #28 Antinous: Conjoined twin.” and #38 fiatrn: “self-embedding… sounds like you stick yourself in something.”

    Yeah, “Self-embedding disorder” means either an internal conjoined identical twin that produces its own nested twin and so forth, or, what happens if you get into a video conference between your first-life and Second Life selves via webcam, and your Second Life self forgets how to make your first life body move.

    It can also happen if you put on VR goggles and look at your own organs with an endoscope.

  23. Tenn @18: We did that. It was useful later to know that I could.

    Antinous @28: “Conjoined twin” is what I thought too, but it might just be a cyst. Or a pebble.

  24. #21: I had this once – a rather solid, tiny object in my leg. It was sitting first deep in the skin but later came closer to the surface (somehow). Well, young and curious as I was, I scratched the skin (I was sitting on the toilet… nothing better to do there obviously) and that got me through.

    What came out was a quite spherical reddish-dark object of about the consistency of a small stone. My mother was seeing the doctor the next day so I gave it to her for some investigation by a professional.

    The doc judged it to be clotted blood, although on retrospective it really could have been some kind of cyst.

    I still have that small patch of thin skin where it used to be – it came out practically without any blood or that sort. It was like having a small hole in your leg.

    Just checked… the mark is still there, although I could barely make it out.

    Trust me, there are little things so strange as switching from being bored on the toilet to pulling stuff that could be alien eggs out of your leg.

  25. I’ve done this by accident on my bike. Clipped a mirror with my fist. With all the blood, a piece of glass got left behind and it stayed in the back of my hand for a few months. I finally picked it out with a pin. It was kinda gooey and weird inside, but after i got out the glass it healed nicely. I hope these kids are cleaning the stuff before they um… insert it.

  26. I would say that I’d never think of doing such a thing intentionally, but that’s not quite right–I sold a story about 4 years ago about a cutter who kept important things under her skin. (If you’re interested in it, search for Celia Marsh and “Wounds”–there are free audio and pdf versions online, whichever your poison may be.) I suppose I’m mostly just surprised that such a thing actually exists outside of my brain.

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