It's generally understood that almost any tattoo will hurt, at least a little bit. You're likely to experience some level of discomfort if you are determined to get inked. However, there are some areas of your body that are much more painful than others. While pain levels can vary by person, certain guidelines can help you make a decision about where to get your tattoo and how painful the experience might be.
Why Tattoos Are (Usually) Painful
Tattoos are a permanent means of placing a design on the body. A needle pierces the upper layer of skin, or epidermis, and extends to the dermis layer below. You aren't just getting poked with one needle. You'll probably get poked with several needles at once, depending on the design. This makes the process uncomfortable for most people.
But not all tattoos are very painful. In truth, tattoos placed on most areas of the body create a level of pain that could be described as annoying, like being scratched. However, there are areas where the pain can be particularly amplified. There are several reasons for increased pain levels, according to the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. These include:
- Getting an area tattooed directly over bone, where the vibration can amplify pain
- Having more sensitivity in one area
- The pace and pressure of the tattoo artist in a particular area
- Your personal tolerance for pain
The Pain Level of Tattoos by Body Area
The pain you experience when getting a tattoo will probably vary from what someone else might experience. Clinical evidence regarding tattoo pain is lacking - so there is no clear guideline for the exact level of discomfort that you will feel. But while all tattoos can be uncomfortable to some degree, a few areas are consistently rated as being more painful than others.
Pain is often measured using a 1-10 scale, where 0 indicates no pain and 10 indicates the worst imaginable pain. There is no clear scientific evidence or medical studies that provide guidance regarding the most or least painful place to get a tattoo, but anecdotal reports from seasoned tattoo artists suggest these spots on the body measure a 5 or above.
The feet and toes have very little 'meat' and are close to the bone, so you feel the normal sting along with the vibration of the gun on the bone. This can feel as though the gun is grinding along the bone. Your toes will also naturally jerk, so keep that in mind. Additionally, the Annals of Neurology notes that this is a heightened area for pain.
Behind the Knee
The sensitivity of this area makes it very painful to tattoo. It has been described as piercing pain. You'll also have to work very hard to keep your leg from jerking.
Pubic Bone and Intimate Areas
The groin area and nipples are full of nerve endings and very little meat, so tattoos in this area can be very painful. These areas may require you to ask the tattoo artist to take multiple breaks.
Much like the inner knee, the nerve endings can make you feel a piercing, hot pain. This is what is typically referred to as a white-knuckle area because you grip the chair hard to remain sitting.
The elbow is a joint that connects two bones. Therefore, tattoos in this area will reverberate along both bones, making the pain seem as if it runs from your wrist to your shoulder. However, take comfort in the fact that this is a small area.
Your hands are designed to feel your way through life and have several nerve endings, making this very high on the pain chart, especially the bony fingers and the palms. The palms of the hands are especially painful and could reach a 9 or 10, depending on your pain tolerance. The hands and fingertips are another area known for heightened pain, according to the Annals of Neurology.
The spine is a long-interconnected area of bone that will vibrate with the tattoo gun. This will make the pain sharp and feel as if it is running along the whole length of the spine.
The ribcage is a large bony area that will transfer the vibration of the gun, adding to the pain. To truly understand the pain of this area, try applying pressure right along the rib itself, then use the same pressure on your calf or the meaty area of your thigh. It can give you an idea of how that area is going to be more sensitive.
A lack of muscle along the sternum can allow you to feel the vibration of the gun all the way into the chest cavity. The vibration can amplify the pain.
Your eyeball is a delicate area that can become easily irritated. Therefore, any tattoos in the eye area can be described as a 9-10. It is a small area that is usually done very quickly. However, be aware that the American Academy of Ophthalmology points out that these tattoos come with a risk of serious side effects along with pain.
Behind the Ear
The back of your ear falls along the bottom of your skull. Therefore, as the gun pierces this area, you will feel the vibrations running along the length of your skull. This will intensify the pain. Take note that according to the Annals of Neurology that the head can be a sensitive area for pain.
Any area of the face will be annoyingly painful because your face contains a lot of nerves and muscles. Furthermore, you may feel vibrations against the skull. The Annals of Neurology lists the forehead as a high-pain area.
How to Lessen the Pain of a Tattoo
There will be some irritation or discomfort with any tattoo. If you're contemplating a tattoo on an area you know to be highly sensitive, there are things you can do to help ease the pain.
Use a Topical Anesthetic
Many tattoo parlors offer a topical anesthetic that can be applied to the area an hour before you're inked. Results vary by person and the cream may need to be reapplied. Scholarly research has proven that topical anesthetic can help to reduce sensitivity and pain.
Do not take aspirin or NSAID painkillers beforehand - these can thin your blood and make the tattoo bleed more heavily. Likewise, medical experts advise that trying to dull the pain by getting intoxicated beforehand is also an unwise idea.
Ask the tattoo artist to take their time. Some artists attempt to get you in and out as quickly as possible so that they can move on to the next client. In their haste, they can push with a heavier hand into your skin, causing more pain.
Use a Light Touch
Along with speed, the touch of the artist is important in relation to the level of pain you'll feel during the tattoo process. The lighter the hand of the artist on the needle, the less pain you'll have during the procedure.
Interview a few artists ahead of time to determine if one might have a lighter touch than another. Or talk to friends with tattoos to see if they've worked with an artist who is more gentle.
Try to Relax
The single most important thing you can do to lessen the pain of a tattoo is to relax. If you tense up, contracting nearby muscles and tendons, you'll be sending a message to your nerve endings to prepare for battle. This heightens the pain of the tattoo no matter where it is on the body or how light the touch of the artist is.
Take some deep breaths, think calm thoughts, and let the artist work. You'll be surprised in the end just how little you felt. Additionally, Mayo Clinic points out relaxation techniques take practice, so practice these beforehand at home.