That new tattoo - the one you've been saving up for, the one that's going to change your life - is going to be a pain. Literally! Getting a tattoo hurts. How much or how little pain you feel depends on many factors. Managing tattoo pain, however, is up to you. There are tips you can use to make your experience less painful.
Why Are Tattoos Painful?
A tattoo involves placing ink under the outer layer of skin using a tattoo gun with many needles. Damaging the skin in this way is likely to hurt, but how much depends on a number of factors, like gender, past experience, relaxation, and the artist, according to the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. Your personal pain tolerance also comes into play. You can control the discomfort a lot or a little by thinking it through and preparing yourself for the best possible experience.
A major factor involved in the pain of a tattoo is placement. Choose a less painful area for your tat if you are really sensitive or worried. While there is little medical research on the pain of tattooing, anecdotal research shows that areas with padding hurt the least. Those would be muscles or fleshy places like your rear end, arms, shoulders, and legs. The prime pain spots are closer to the bone or have a lot of nerve endings like underarms, groin area, ankles, hands, feet, ribs, head, and face.
How to Prep to Reduce Tattoo Pain
Preparation is key. You don't want to go into the tattoo parlor blind. You should be aware of your own personal pain limits and the pain level of the area you are tattooing. Additionally, simple steps like wearing the right clothes and educating yourself about over-the-counter pain relief can help ensure everything goes smoothly on the day of your scheduled tattoo.
Standard Tattoo Prep
Before your tattoo session, take charge of your health and energy level. For example, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) points out that eating a healthy balanced diet with vegetables, fruits, and protein can promote wound healing. Other standard ways to get ready for a tattoo experience include:
- Arm yourself with a good book or your playlist, earbuds, and phone for a long session.
- Avoid alcohol or recreational drugs. Alcohol thins your blood, and both mess with your head. Do your ink focused.
- Avoid taking NSAIDs, like aspirin and ibuprofen, as they can increase bleeding. Since tattoos pierce the skin and you bleed, you don't want blood thinners to increase this. Bathe or shower for squeaky-clean skin. While the artist will clean your skin, you are prepping to remove germs.
- Get a good night's sleep so you are rested and relaxed. Poor quality sleep can have negative effects on your stress level and experience.
- Limit coffee to one cup, and limit stimulants in general. You want to be in the Zen zone for this adventure, not hopped-up and wired. Start hydrating about two hours before your appointment - drink plenty of water. Hydration is good for wound care, according to AND. (Remember to use the restroom right before your tattoo session starts.)
- Talk to your healthcare provider about taking over-the-counter pain medications if you think you will need them.
- Wear loose, comfortable clothing that lets you sit or lie down without restriction (for hours, if you're getting an ambitious tat).
Lastly, be sure to reschedule your appointment if you don't feel well. Tattoo pain can be more severe if you are also managing another illness.
Strategies for Tattoo Pain Relief
When it comes to a tattoo, you're not a passive spectator. You participate in this ritual, so get it right and give yourself the best possible experience.
Learn some simple breathing techniques for the tense moments, and you'll unclench and feel it less. If you happen to be squeamish about needles or blood, share this with your tat artist and arrange not to watch. You can also try these other ways to limit pain.
One way to reduce pain is to rub in some numbing cream or topical anesthesia. 2021 research shows that topical anesthesia is effective in reducing pain because it affects nerve endings to desensitize the area to be tattooed. Use this as a last resort, however. Its effectiveness varies, and your body will produce pain-blocking endorphins once the session starts, so the hassle may outweigh the benefit.
Always check in advance with your tattoo artist about using a numbing agent. Some prefer not to work with them. Numbing cream comes in water-based cream and in gel or spray.
Mindfulness is a technique of staying present in the moment, paying attention to now, not what just happened or what's next. It's very tricky, because 'now' is over as soon as you notice it. But, if you're not reflecting on the pain that just happened, or stressing over the pain to come, you observe yourself feeling discomfort for a nanosecond, and then it's gone. You're not hanging onto your pain. You're continually letting it go.
Meditation is just an extended version of mindfulness. Pay attention to your breathing and try to empty your mind. The pain goes with the thoughts. You'd have to be a meditation master to feel nothing - but you can diminish the pain's power by shifting your attention away from it.
A 2017 study showed that hypnosis, even self-hypnosis, is effective for pain management. According to Palliative Care: Research and Treatment, hypnosis is a state of consciousness where you are detached from your current environment.
Give your artist a heads-up, so they won't think you've checked out when you're in self-hypnosis. Then close your eyes and consciously relax every body part from your toes to the top of your head. Slip into a vivid daydream about the most peaceful place you can imagine. Work all five senses to experience this place, almost like being inside a movie. The downside is you miss the tattooing experience. The upside is you miss the tattooing experience. Your call.
Once your tattoo is complete, you can relish in your accomplishment. You did it. You suffered, you survived, and now your skin is sporting some new artwork that is awesome. Thank the artist who got you through it. Congratulate yourself for managing the pain successfully.
Follow your aftercare instructions to the letter to prevent an infection or complication that will be painful. Use your newfound wisdom to plan your next tattoo. Then share your stoic tips with anyone who asks you if it really hurts a lot to get a tattoo.