Self-Mutilating Teens Embed Pins, Needles in Skin

"It was a cultural influence that produced these 'needle girls,'" said Favazza. "There was a lot of fascination with holy men in the Near East … and entertainers."

Edward Gibson, a popular vaudeville entertainer in the late 1800s, used to ask the audience to push pins into his limbs, hands and feet. Favazza said couple this idea with emotional pain, and some women turned to embedding needles.

Self-Embedding Trends Across History

Whether embedding and self-injury became a trend in the 1890s, or the 1980s or the 2000s, psychiatrists assert that these behaviors are more serious than a fad.

"These are mostly women who have a severe history of childhood abuse, particularly neglect," said Obolsky.

"What happens to them is the dissociation, it's a painful state where they may space out for long periods of times," he said. "To prevent this they may cut themselves, because pain, believe it or not, feels better than the dissociation."

Favazza's research indicates the population of self-injurers is 60 percent women, 40 percent men. He found dissociation as a reason, but several other motivations too.

"The most common reason by far, the most common reason is to reduce anxiety," said Favazza. "Part of it can be to get to get attention, too."

Kaslow said the self-mutilators could be suffering from a range of situations: troubled families where there's lots of conflict; adolescents who are struggling with their identity or to fit in school; and abuse.

"It makes you raise the question of abuse, but it's not necessarily a sure sign of abuse," said Kaslow.

While Kaslow worries media reports will only make more susceptible teens try self-embedding, Shiels think it may be a better way to get them treatment.

"The big message we gave is this is not a story of despair. Now that we know what it is, we can treat it," he said.

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