One of the most common questions we get asked is “do tattoos hurt?” or “how much does getting a tattoo hurt?” This blog post is for anyone who is interested in how to reduce the pain when getting tattooed and for the whole experience to be less painful and less stressful
Firstly it is important to mention that being tattooed isn’t agonisingly painful. If it were, no one would be heavily tattooed. We still want to make things easy for ourselves though, especially before an appointment or by the end of a long session, so here is our advice.
What should I do before I get tattooed?
Getting a large tattoo session is a lot for your body and immune system to deal with so try to help it out as much as possible. Don’t get drunk the night before, try and get a good night’s sleep and eat a sensible meal before your appointment. Low and fluctuating blood sugar is the reason some people light headed or sick when getting tattooed and a decent meal should help combat that. Sweets and sugary drinks might be ok to quickly reverse low blood sugar in someone, but they can also produce insulin spikes and are not the best thing before or during your tattoo.
Pain relief for tattoos.
1) Meditation/state of mind.
Studies have shown that meditation can be more powerful at pain relief than morphine. See this recent article from The Telegraph. We have definitely found a relaxed state of mind to be the most important thing for customers, we can’t stress this enough. If you are not a meditation master, just focusing on slow breathing and staying relaxed will help relieve the temporary pain and discomfort during a tattoo session more than any medication. Simple distraction techniques like sucking a lollipop or just having a conversation can really help.
Sometimes it hurts, but try not to mind that it hurts.
2) Numbing creams and topical anesthetics.
There are a variety of topical pain relief options available that come in two forms; creams used prior to tattooing and solutions used once the skin is broken.
Examples of tattoo numbing creams that we have known customers to use with very mixed results include Dr Numb, Emla and Ametop. Our experience of tattoo numbing creams is that they are not really the solution you expect. They tend to work for a relatively short period, usually less than an hour, and once they have worn off people seem to really struggle. Whether this is physiological or psychological is unclear but we have seen it time and time again. In a nutshell, no one who uses the creams sees to have an easier session and this is something we have seen time and time again. They may be of limited use if you were to have a short session, maybe 30 minutes or so, but there are other cons for the artist unfortunately.
When used, numbing creams can cause the area it has been applied to swell. This can cause problems when applying the tattoo stencil as it is easier for it to distort. Many tattoo numbing creams make the area they are applied to hard, rubbery and difficult to tattoo, which can lengthen the time a tattoo should take. We would always advise telling the tattoo artist that you are considering using a topical numbing cream as some aren’t happy to tattoo an area that has numbing cream on it.
Purchasing numbing cream is a grey area. Some pharmacies in Birmingham, and across the UK, may or may not sell them without prescription, but they can usually be found online somewhere.
The second type of topical pain relief for being tattooed is a spray such as Bactine or Vasocaine – both based on lidocaine – that is used during and directly after being tattooed, to open/damaged skin. They only numb the skin for a short amount of time and only once it is already damaged, sometimes with only very slight relief. It can however be applied multiple times during a tattoo sitting. It can help with large-scale tattoos, which will be painful by the end of a long session. The stronger sprays have been shown to affect the healing process – anecdotally at least – and have fallen somewhat out of favour. Whether this is due to blood flow affecting the healing – they act as vaso-constrictors – or that they allow a tattoo to be overworked, is unclear.
Due to the fact the skin needs to be broken for the spray to work, these don’t tend to work so well on small tattoos or tattoos where one area isn’t being worked on extensively.
3) Medications for tattoo pain relief?
An obvious disclaimer here, we are not pharmacists and none of this should be taken as advice. We don’t know your medical history, or what you may or may not react badly to. We can only tell you what we know other people have taken, what works and what doesn’t. Speak to you pharmacist or doctor before proceeding.
Believe it or not, some people seem to find relief with over the counter medication such as paracetamol and ibuprofen. It is important not to use asprin as it will stop the clotting process and make you bleed more. This is a nightmare for tattooing and tends to lead to a crap final result. The same thing goes for alcohol, and this includes drinking the night before.
Prescribed medication, such as Tramadol, Valium and Cocodemol, have been used over the years and, perhaps unsurprisingly as they are strong drugs, all seem to help. Obviously, these are not available to everyone, and they can have side effects in some people, but if you are taking them already maybe ask your doctor if you can take them whilst getting tattooed too.
Finally, there are anecdotal stories of people using the pain relief and sedative effect of cough medicine. Apparently Niquill in the USA and Vick’s Medinite in the UK are the only ones that people seem to rate. It is not sold for this purpose, so we can’t personally recommend it, we just know that some people have tried it. (As explained in the next point, sedatives help you deal with pain, not stimulants. Interestingly it seems they don’t actually relieve pain themselves, they just help you stay in the calm relaxed state of mind that makes all the difference)
4) Drugs for tattoo pain relief?
Common perceived wisdom would suggest marijuana would be effective at pain relief whilst being tattooed but there are a few problems. Firstly, the results of clinical studies are mixed. There is an in depth read about the various studies here, but this is a quote which is interesting; “By contrast, some clinical studies not only have failed to demonstrate that THC relieves pain but have also found that the drug has the opposite effect. In these experiments, volunteers who experienced painful shocks, heat, or pressure from a tourniquet reported that THC actually increased their sensitivity to pain”.
In our incredibly unscientific and anecdotal experience, weed doesn’t seem to help people getting tattooed. We have had people struggle or feel sick and then admit they “had a spliff” before coming in because they thought “it would help”, it didn’t. Of course, maybe they would have been worse without it, or maybe lots of people smoke cannabis before getting tattooed, get on fine so never tell us about it. It is important to mention that walking in a tattoo shop whilst high or dunk is incredibly annoying and rude. If you are noticeably affected then most artists and studios are likely to refuse to tattoo you.
What is the worst thing to take before getting tattooed?
Without a doubt stimulants, such as energy drinks, caffeine and cocaine are a terrible idea before getting tattooed. Stimulants increase alertness, anxiety, blood pressure and heart rate making sitting still for the duration of a tattoo session challenging. Have you ever heard of a dentist giving someone a stimulant instead of a sedative to a nervous patient?
Leave that red bull alone. If you need the energy, have a bowl of porridge and a piece of fruit.
Is there anything I can take to relieve pain after having my tattoo?
Generally tattoos are hardly more than a slight annoyance once they are done. Maybe some ibuprofen might help with any swelling but we have found the effects to be minimal. Follow the aftercare routine given and it should heal up fine.
So how can you stop a tattoo hurting? Well you can’t, not really, but get a good night’s sleep, eat a decent breakfast with as little sugar as possible, no stimulants (including energy drinks), possibly try some over the counter medication if you feel the need and leave the numbing creams alone, they really aren’t worth it. Above all else, stay calm and relaxed, the mind is the most powerful thing of all.