A new tattoo is a big deal - and pain is an inescapable part of that deal. Although many people believe that pain is an important part of getting a tattoo, controlling pain can make the experience the positive one you anticipate, not a grit-your-teeth torture-test.
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:
- The hands and feet
- The ankles
- The ribs and sternum
- The lower back
- The groin area
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.
Taking acetaminophen (Tylenol) is recommended 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 even more likely to increase bleeding.
Acetaminophen, which helps with pain but not swelling, is a better choice because it does not normally influence bleeding or change the way blood clots. Be sure to follow the package directions closely if you decide to give it a try.
Hypnosis for Pain
Some doctors 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 any 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 he/she barely notices 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.
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. Simple steps to self-hypnosis for dealing with tattoo pain include:
- Get comfortable. Settle yourself in the chair. Let the artist position you so he/she will be able to work. Next, do your best to relax your body.
- Think of a favorite place or activity. Maybe you love to surf, or ski or cook. Where would you go to do one of those things?
- Now, begin to imagine the place. You might see a pristine, snowy mountaintop… crashing surf… or a gourmet kitchen…
- 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?
- Now put yourself there. What are you doing? Maybe catching the perfect wave, schussing down a slope, or tossing ingredients around like Bobby Flay.
Embracing the Pain
For many tattoo enthusiasts, the pain is an important part of the process. Controlling the pain is less important than feeling it, accepting it, and embracing the endorphin rush that pain brings.
If it's your first tattoo, the pain can be a rite of passage. Some people see it as a fair price to pay to wear permanent, beautiful, meaningful art. Some even enjoy it as an important part of the tattooing ritual.
There are preparations to numb the skin, but most tattoo artists won't recommend them, and there are potential issues with these medications, such as allergic reactions. An anesthetic cream such as Emla will numb skin for about half an hour at a time, but tattoos usually take longer than that. Also, it can reduce blood flow to the skin. Theoretically, that could affect how the tattoo is placed or how it heals.
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 fills the skin with fluid, changing its shape and/or texture. Lidocaine also affects blood flow. Many tattooists would hesitate to tattoo skin that had been treated with injected lidocaine.
Pay Attention to Your Body's Signals
Even if you've decided to appreciate the pain, pay attention to your body's signals. If you feel faint or nauseous, ask the artist to take a break. 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.