Different Ways to Control Tattoo Pain

Updated July 26, 2022
woman experiencing unusually high tattoo pain

A new tattoo is a big deal. Unfortunately, pain is an inescapable part of that deal. The tattoo process involves injecting ink into your skin with needles, which can cause redness, inflammation, and irritation.

Thankfully, there are a few different ways to control pain when it comes to getting a tattoo, like medication and hypnosis. Find out tips for making your tattoo process more memorable, in a good way.

4 Ways to Control Tattoo Pain

There are several different ways to manage discomfort when getting a tattoo. Of course some places are less painful to tattoo than others. So for some people, pain management simply means choosing the right area. But regardless of the spot you choose, you have options for pain management.

OTC Medications

Some people choose to take acetaminophen (Tylenol) an hour before starting the tattooing process. Ibuprofen is a poor choice as it can also thin the blood and prolong bleeding time. Aspirin is also a blood thinner and can increase bleeding.

Acetaminophen is an analgesic which can help with pain. But it is always best to check with your healthcare provider to get personalized recommendations and to be sure that the medication you choose doesn't interact with your current medications or any supplement you might be taking. Be sure to follow the package directions closely if you decide to give it a try.

Hypnosis

Some behavioral health practitioners use a form of hypnosis to help patients deal with the pain of shots, broken bones, and even surgery. This isn't the classic "You're feeling very sleepy…" kind of hypnosis, and it doesn't involve funny behavior. It's just a way of distracting yourself from the pain.

For example, blowing bubbles can make a child's immunization shot hurt less. The child is so interested in the bubbles they barely notice the pain. The same can work for adults. Telling a patient to "wiggle your toes" before a shot can be so distracting that the shot is over before the patient even knows it happened.

Self-Hypnosis

For a longer-lasting process like a tattoo, controlling the pain takes more effort. You need a distraction that you can sustain throughout the tattooing process. A form of self-hypnosis can keep your mind away from the pain. Follow these simple steps to self-hypnosis for dealing with tattoo pain:

  1. Get comfortable. Settle yourself in the chair. Let the artist position you so they will be able to work. Next, do your best to relax your body.
  2. Think of a favorite place or activity. Maybe you love to surf, ski, or cook. Where would you go to do one of those things?
  3. Now, begin to imagine the place. You might see a pristine, snowy mountaintop… crashing surf… or a gourmet kitchen…
  4. Paint in the details. What does the place smell like? The clean, crisp scent of pines and snow? Suntan lotion and the sea? What does it look like? What color is the sky? What shape is the land? Do you hear any sounds? Is it warm or cold? Is there any wind?
  5. Now put yourself there. What are you doing? Maybe catching the perfect wave, schussing down a slope, or tossing ingredients around like Bobby Flay.

Choose a Less Sensitive Area

One easy way of controlling tattoo pain is to avoid getting tattooed in places where the skin is most sensitive. Tattooists and tattoo enthusiasts say that the most painful places are areas where there is not a lot of fat or muscle between the skin and the underlying bone, such as:

  • Ankles
  • Groin
  • Hands and feet
  • Lower back
  • Sternum

Popular tattoo spots like the shoulder and upper arm are usually less sensitive. The buttocks, outer thigh, and calves are other places that people with a low pain threshold might want to try.

Problematic Methods of Pain Management

You can find some tattoo shops that can apply topical analgesia to your skin prior to the tattoo. You might also consider injectable anesthetics. However, there are potential issues with these medications that you should consider.

Topical Analgesia

An anesthetic cream, such as Emla, numbs skin for about half an hour at a time, but tattoos usually take longer than that. Additionally, a study suggests that topical analgesia can limit the blood flow, which could affect how the tattoo heals.

Injectable Anesthetics

Lidocaine is an injectable medicine that doctors use before placing stitches or doing minor surgery. It burns going in, but after that the skin becomes completely numb. However, injecting the medicine temporarily can cause inflammation and swelling in the area prior to tattooing. Some tattooists would hesitate to tattoo skin treated with injected lidocaine.

How (and Why) to Embrace Tattoo Pain

For many tattoo enthusiasts, the pain is an integral part of the process. Controlling the pain is less important than feeling it, accepting it, and embracing the endorphin rush that pain brings.

The pain can be a rite of passage if it's your first tattoo. Pain can be seen as a fair price to pay to wear permanent, beautiful, meaningful art. Some even enjoy it as an important part of the tattooing ritual.

woman deep breathing to relax while getting a tattoo

The application of a tattoo is going to have some pain involved. However, beyond just choosing a less sensitive place, you can try a few different things to make your experience and pain more manageable.

  • Go in with a full stomach. Make sure to eat within two hours of your appointment.
  • Make sure to go into the shop sober. Alcohol and drug intoxication can make the experience more painful.
  • Make sure you are well rested.
  • Practice deep breathing techniques.
  • Take breaks as you need to.
  • Drink lots of water before your appointment.
  • Use music, a TV show, or conversation to distract you.

Lastly, pay attention to your body's signals even if you've decided to appreciate the pain. Ask the artist to take a break if you feel faint or nauseous. A good artist will work with you, sometimes even letting you come back another day. Severe pain can mean that the tattoo is being placed too deep or that something else is wrong. If you're worried, ask. If you don't trust the artist, don't forget that you can always walk away.

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