A broken tongue is a painful injury that can make eating, drinking, and talking difficult. Fortunately, the tongue has an excellent blood supply and heals quickly in most cases. With proper treatment, a broken tongue usually mends within a few weeks.
What causes a broken tongue?
There are several potential causes of a broken tongue:
- Biting the tongue
- Trauma from a blow to the mouth
- Oral cancer surgery
- Piercing the tongue
Biting the tongue is the most common cause of a broken tongue. It usually happens accidentally while chewing or talking. A broken tongue from biting generally affects only the top surface of the tongue.
Trauma from a blow to the mouth can cause a more significant break or laceration. Sports injuries, falls, and physical abuse are common sources of this type of tongue injury. Seizures may also result in unintentional biting that fractures the tongue.
Oral cancer surgery is another potential cause. Partially removing the tongue during cancer surgery can leave it more susceptible to fractures. Lastly, getting your tongue pierced can lead to cracks or breaks if the piercing becomes infected or is agitated.
Symptoms of a broken tongue
The signs and symptoms of a broken tongue may include:
- Sudden pain when the break occurs
- Swelling of the tongue
- Visible cut, tear, or bruise on the tongue
- Tongue bleeding
- Difficulty and pain with talking
- Difficulty with chewing and swallowing
- Drooling due to inability to swallow
The pain is usually described as sharp and sudden when the tongue is fractured. Swelling happens quickly as blood rushes to the injured site. The break itself may be visible as a laceration or bruise.
Bleeding from a torn tongue is common. The amount of bleeding depends on the severity and location of the fracture. Mild fractures may cause minimal bleeding, while deep lacerations at the base of the tongue may bleed profusely.
Talking and moving the tongue can become very painful with a broken tongue. Chewing solid foods and swallowing also becomes difficult. Severe injuries may make it impossible to talk or swallow until healing occurs.
When to see a doctor
You should seek medical care if you experience:
- Excessive bleeding from the tongue
- Inability to drink or swallow
- Extreme pain or swelling
- Signs of infection like pus or fever
Most simple tongue lacerations heal well at home with self-care. But if you have trouble breathing or swallowing due to tongue swelling, uncontrolled bleeding, or are unable to stay hydrated, you need emergency care.
Diagnosing a broken tongue
To diagnose a broken tongue, a doctor will ask about your symptoms and perform a physical exam. They will look closely at your tongue to find the location and extent of the injury.
Your doctor may also order imaging tests if the fracture appears severe or has unusual symptoms. X-rays, MRIs, and CT scans can all detect fractures and rule out other injuries like tooth damage or facial fractures.
The doctor needs to determine if the fracture is:
- Partial thickness (affecting only the top layer of the tongue)
- Full thickness (going deeper through the muscle)
- Open (with a laceration) or closed
This helps guide appropriate treatment and prognosis.
Assessing bleeding and ability to swallow
The doctor will also evaluate any bleeding and your ability to swallow. Signs of a partially obstructed or swollen airway may require steroids to reduce inflammation.
Treating a broken tongue
Treatment focuses on pain control, reducing swelling, stopping bleeding, preventing infection, and keeping you hydrated while the tongue heals. Options may include:
- Pain medication like acetaminophen or ibuprofen
- Steroid injection or prescription steroids to decrease swelling
- Topical numbing medication applied directly to the tongue
- Anti-nausea medication if swallowing is difficult
- Sutures for deep lacerations
- Topical antibiotics if the wound appears infected
- IV fluids or hospitalization for dehydration
Most tongue lacerations don’t require stitches since they heal quickly on their own. Deep, gaping wounds may be sutured closed after numbing the tongue. This prevents excessive bleeding and supports faster healing.
Your doctor may recommend a tetanus shot if your immunizations aren’t up to date. People with extensive swelling are monitored closely in the hospital for obstruction of breathing.
You can support your recovery at home with:
- Cold compresses to reduce swelling
- Soft, cool foods and cold liquids
- Avoiding hot, spicy, acidic or crunchy foods
- Gently rinsing the mouth after meals
- Resting the tongue as much as possible
Eating soft, chilled foods makes swallowing easier and prevents further injury. Foods like ice cream, apple sauce, yogurt, and chilled soups are good options. Avoid spicy seasonings and salt, which can be painful.
Rinsing gently with a salt water solution helps keep the area clean after meals. Limit talking and tongue movement as much as you can to support the healing process.
Tongue fracture recovery time
The tongue usually heals quickly, especially for minor injuries. With appropriate treatment, you can expect:
- Surface lacerations to heal in 7-10 days
- Deeper muscular lacerations to heal in 2-3 weeks
- Moderate to severe injuries taking 3-4 weeks
Pain and difficulty swallowing should begin improving within the first week. Swelling may persist for up to 2 weeks before fully resolving.
It’s important to follow your doctor’s instructions for wound care, pain medication, and activity restrictions during your recovery.
While most tongue fractures heal without issue, possible complications can include:
- Dehydration from difficulty swallowing
- Infections that delay healing
- Persistent swelling obstructing breathing
- Damage to the salivary glands or ducts
- Permanent changes in taste or sensation
- Scarring at the site of deep lacerations
Rarely, a hematoma (collection of blood) may form under the tongue and need to be drained. Nerve damage can also occur, leading to chronic pain or numbness.
You can help prevent a painful tongue injury by taking these precautions:
- Eat slowly and carefully
- Avoid extreme sports and risky physical activities if possible
- Wear a mouthguard for contact sports
- Make living spaces fall-proof to avoid traumatic falls
- Manage any seizure disorders properly with medication
- Get prompt treatment for oral infections to prevent tongue abscesses
Practicing good oral hygiene and treating infections quickly can also reduce the risk of tongue fractures. Stopping smoking improves circulation for better healing.
When to see your doctor again
Follow up with your doctor if you experience any concerning symptoms such as:
- Fever or spreading redness
- Increased swelling
- No improvement in pain or function after 1 week
- Bleeding that restarts
- Difficulty breathing
Ongoing problems with eating, drinking, or talking should also prompt a visit for re-evaluation. Call your doctor right away if you have any pus drainage or other signs the tongue isn’t healing properly.
Outlook for a broken tongue
The overall prognosis for a broken tongue is good once treated properly. Even severe lacerations of the tongue usually heal without lasting complications. With excellent blood flow, most tongue fractures mend completely over 2-4 weeks.
Rarely, some minor effects may linger after healing such as slight changes in taste. But normal tongue function usually returns within several weeks with appropriate fracture care and limiting further injury while it heals.
|Minor surface laceration||7-10 days|
|Partial thickness fracture||10-14 days|
|Full thickness fracture||2-3 weeks|
|Deep laceration with muscular injury||3-4 weeks|
While painful, a broken tongue usually heals well within a few weeks. Minor fractures may only take 7-10 days to mend. Proper treatment focuses on reducing pain, swelling, infection risk and supporting nutrition.
With excellent blood flow, most tongue lacerations can heal completely without complications. Following doctor’s orders for recovery and limiting further injury can help ensure successful healing of a broken tongue.