Case Reports

A Nervous Recipient of a “Tongue Lashing”

A veteran with a history of mental illness and drug and alcohol misuse developed a bleeding lesion on his tongue, which raised concerns of self-injury.

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Self-injurious behaviors are common and can be either volitional or unintentional. Often people who perform these behaviors receive “tongue lashings” from family, friends, and loved ones. We recently treated a patient whose lesion in the oral cavity was thought to be caused by some form of self-injury, though the prognosis clearly depended on the true culprit. It is important for clinicians to identify the cause of the injury when encountering patients with oral cavity lesions.

Case Presentation

A 40-year-old white male with a medical history of bipolar disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, polysubstance abuse, and recently diagnosed temporomandibular joint (TMJ) syndrome was seen in outpatient primary care for a bleeding lesion in his mouth for the past 3 weeks. The lesion was under the surface of his right tongue. He first noted the lesion after he had burned himself tasting some homemade rice pudding while under the influence of marijuana. The next day, an impression was taken of his mouth by a dental assistant who was fitting him for an oral appliance for his TMJ syndrome; according to his history, she did not perform a visual inspection of his mouth nor could he recall his last dental examination. He had neither lost weight nor experienced dysphagia. He was not taking any prescribed medications, had an 8 pack-year history of smoking cigarettes, and had smoked crack cocaine intermittently for several years. The also patient had chewed one-half tin per day of chewing tobacco for 5 years, though he had quit 7 years before presentation. He was consuming 6 alcoholic drinks daily and had no history of chewing betel nuts.

On physical examination, the patient seemed extremely anxious, but his vital signs were unremarkable. The nasal dorsum was straight, and the nares were widely patent. There were no suspicious cutaneous lesions noted of the face, head, trunk, or extremities. The salivary glands were soft and showed no lesions or masses within the parotid or submandibular glands bilaterally. There was no obvious obstruction of Stenson or Wharton ducts bilaterally. He had normal lips and oral competence. The dentition was noted to be fair.

A nonfriable, 1.5 cm-wide lesion was found on the ventral surface of the right tongue (Figure 1). The tongue was mobile. The mouth floor was soft and without evidence of masses or lesions. The tonsils, tonsillar pillars, palate, and base of tongue did not show any concerning lesions or masses. The neck revealed a nonenlarged thyroid and no lymphadenopathy. The remainder of the examination was unremarkable.


Given his risk factors of alcohol use disorder and a history of both inhaled and chewing tobacco, oral squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) was considered. The differential diagnosis also included pyogenic granuloma, mucocele, sublingual fibroma, and metastasis to the oral soft tissue. Due to its implications with respect to morbidity and mortality, we thought it necessary to rule out SCC of the oral cavity. SCC comprises more than 90% of oral malignancies, and tobacco-related products, alcohol, and human papilloma virus are well-established risk factors.1

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