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Tattoos hurt. What can you do to cope with that pain?
Regardless of your best buddy who has skin like granite, tattoo pain is real.
It’s something we have all come to expect when being stabbed with needles. Even if it is, pain shouldn’t be a determining factor when deciding to get a tattoo. Let’s look into some basic principles as to why tattoos hurt, how they are done, and what you can do to manage the pain of the tattoo, before, during, and after the procedure.
Tattooing, Why does it hurt so much!?
So let’s start with the basics and break the whole thing down Barney style. Tattooing is the process of getting ink into the skin and getting it to stay, permanently. In the western world, this is done using a tattoo machine (also known as – tattoo gun, tattoo device) where a grouping of needles is placed inside a receiving tube and attached to a bar that is connected to the said machine via a flat metal spring (in 1 or 2 pieces.). It moves up and down pushing the needle into the skin, creating a small opening wherein the needle is retracted and “pulls or pushes” the ink into the skin.
How the machines get ink in your skin
Some expansion to the steps above – The tattoo machine works in a simple harmonic motion, driving the needles attached to a bar up and down… quickly. The receiving tube has a reservoir that collects a suspension of pigment particles (also known as ink) by dipping the needles and receiving tube into an ink cap (which holds the pigment). The ink that is collected is pushed into the skin and captured by immune cells and held in place. Phew! (This is seriously overly simplified, but, I have a section that explains this further in the Tattooing Hands and Feet Article.)
Picture a vibrating loose meat sandwich shoving pickles and onions into … Something?
So, Getting tattooed hurts. And yes, I know that pain is totally subjective. Your friend Becky had her ribs blasted for 12 hours straight and didn’t even blink an eye, while you, a discerning tattoo aficionado, sat for 2 lines on your wrist at a quarter-inch long and screamed like a boiled rat.
Get a Little Help From Your Artist Friend.
What you don’t know is that Becky may have had a great artist sit her down and walk her through how to cope with the tattoo process and the inevitable pain. Now you, dear reader, can take with you a couple tips that should help you sit like a corpse through the short, or long, the session you have coming up.
Dealing with Tattoo Pain.
1. Get a good night’s rest.
Yup. This is a great way to help stave off any crazy pain sensations, and its one of the easiest and cheapest ways to help you sit through a tattoo. Studies show (not a full list but the abstract and footnotes have some great links to additional studies) that sleep and the interpretation of pain are inextricably linked.
What does that mean? If you stay up all night crushing Redbull’s and Mountain Dew Code Red while running dual instances of Fortnite and hit the sack at 7 AM, you won’t sit well for your tattoo at noon. Your body needs rest. Sorry insomnia suffers!
Sleep before a tattoo gets rid of all those hormones and chemicals that make you feel like crap. Your brain rests and it can deal with the stress of getting stabbed a million times.
So, please, get 8 hours of sleep.
2. Eat Before Your Tattoo.
Eating can take your pain away. I am serious.
If you live in the Western world (the USA especially) you will see expanding waistlines on happy people. We are always hurting and gosh darn it we love to eat! The good thing is that having a delicious meal will help you with any pain associated with a tattoo. Your body responds to the stabbing of tattoos with inflammation, as well as a pain response.
If you are more sensitive to that response, by not eating, your ability to deal with the pain is limited. This means you are going to be in for a world of hurt. So eat something that you enjoy before the tattoo session. You should also bring along snacks to munch on during a break in tattooing. Your brain rewards you with the release of things called endorphins which will help you deal with the pain. This reward system is so strong, it has been described as stronger than your body’s response to taking cocaine.
3. Keep caffeine to a minimum.
Oh my goodness, you can’t make it out of bed without a double pot of french roast. That may spell trouble for your tattoo session. Caffeine is a vasoconstrictor which means it can increase blood pressure and close up the veins in your body.
Contrary to common belief, caffeine does not thin your blood. The “thinning” of your blood that is noticeable after ingesting coffee is due to decreased efficacy of your platelets. Platelets are the things that form scabs and stop bleeding when you get injured.
While the exact mechanism isn’t fully understood (at the time this article is written) you can wager a bet that the decrease in platelet function will increase your body’s propensity to bleed during a tattoo.
( As an aside, the additives in energy drinks exacerbate this effect, making them a double whammy)
What is a good idea, if you are addicted to caffeine like I, keep your intake low – have only a cup a few hours before your tattoo.
4. Drink water.
You have had this drilled into your brain since childhood and there is evidence that drinking water can help with your feelings of pain.
Being hydrated is a good thing. Remember above where I had mentioned something about inflammation? That process is part of what influences your pain tolerance when getting tattooed. Here is an article that is grossly overqualified for how I type but goes into great detail about how and why being hydrated is good for pain management.
5. Learn to meditate.
If you’re from a place that looks towards left-leaning cultures as a place where hypocrisy reigns supreme, and all folks are coo-coo, you may have cringed or become uncomfortable at the above-mentioned idea. “Whatchu talkin’ ’bout bhoy. I ain’t gone waste my time doing no meditates! I can handle the pain like a real man-uh.” Sadly, you would be wrong there my friend. Meditating doesn’t mean you have to take up a vegan lifestyle and join a naked hot yoga class.
What it means is that you should be focusing your attention on something other than whatever the fuck it is you are thinking about currently.
This may spell disaster to anyone with ADD or ADHD but it is a great trick to spin through time and keep the interpreted pain at bay while getting a tattoo.
I have had the luck of meeting many people who were open to the idea of focused pain management over the years I have worked tattooing. I tell them to bring something to the appointment that helps them “veg out”. This is key though, it has to be focused on the individual.
Types of Clients and How To Meditate For A Tattoo.
The Audiophile Tattoo Client
- If someone is always listening to music as a way to separate from their surroundings, they are triggered through audio stimulation (their ears). Having a horror movie on with tense music and screaming will ensure a short sit so keep things calm. Put on some Enya.
The Cinephile Tattoo Client
- For people who lose themselves in the splendor of some visual stimulus, I tell them to bring in whatever they feel comfortable watching. It can be a movie or a TV series, but something that they can strap some headphones on and watch.
The Haphephile Tattoo Client
- For those unlucky enough to be stimulated by touch more than anything, (think you get lost with massages) they are a hit or miss client. I have had some people who were good holding someone else’s hand to sit for an eternity, others are good with covering their faces with a soft or silky blanket/garment/towel. Sadly, some of those people just fucking laser focus in on the pain and sit like absolute crap. There is little to do to get them through the tattoo process other than lying to them about time and the length of the procedure so far.
6. Take Some Tylenol or Advil.
While the majority of tattooers out there are undecided on the effects of NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) on a tattoo, I have used them sparingly for years as a way to fight inflammation and pain during a procedure. **Note – Make sure an adequate medical history is conducted and permission from a medical professional has been given before utilizing any NSAIDs during or after a procedure** I won’t go into the pharmacokinetics but this shit works but you know that they do work due to their success globally. This tip also does not suggest to pound back 12 Advil with a Redbull during your sick tat session. Please, be responsible.
Taking an NSAID after the tattoo procedure is completed also can help with pain or inflammation. Especially with those marathon sessions. Go talk to your PCP and get some feedback about how and why these may be a good tool in your tattoo artist/client arsenal.
7. Take Breaks.
Every hour take a 5-minute break to rest and adjust your eyes and allow the client to move about. At 3.5 hours, let them get a good meal and hydrate. This simple process will help in people sitting 9+ hours consistently.
This process isn’t to be broken up for phone calls, text messages, social media, cigarettes, or consultations. Set up long appointments with the full intention of that tattoo being done your only goal for the day. Do not get interrupted or sidetracked. Focus on your client and what they are going through to complete a marathon session or that short 2 line session that gives you so much grief.
8. Wear Loose Fitting, Comfortable Clothing.
Wearing something comfortable to the tattoo session is of utmost importance. Who wants to be sitting around in something constricting while being stabbed with a needle? No one. Be prepared as the clothing you wear may get ink on it, so having on a fancy tux or evening dress is not an option.
9. Bring something to squeeze.
Having a stress ball can be of benefit to some while others may want to grind their teeth on a mouthguard. I have found that this trick is usually good for the shorter tattoo sittings. Can you imagine how stiff your hands would feel after squeezing a stress ball for 7 hours?
10. Don’t Come In Drunk Or Stoned.
This should not even have to be sad but, in an industry that was fueled in the west by drunken mistakes, more tattoos have been born than children from 1-night stands (this may be an exaggeration).
Being under the influence creates a significant moral dilemma for the artist – How can you rationally give consent? Without a rational mind, your consent means nothing and that tattoo of “daffy duck smokin’ a joint” may result in a good laugh in 20 years but looks like garbage now.
Apart from that, studies show that being intoxicated from marijuana and alcohol can actually increase your tolerance to pain (this is under review as we don’t know if you are just better at dealing with the pain or if you actually feel less pain). You end up talking with your hands more, so sitting calmly and not moving around is an impossibility.
So that’s it for this article. Give me feedback or comments below.