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  • Writer's pictureKTREW

5 Effective Ways To Reduce Tattoo Pain

Updated: Mar 29, 2023

Five things that help to reduce tattoo pain, and 5 things that don’t.

It should be said that although tattoos are painful, they are not excruciatingly bad - otherwise no one would get them. You’ll experience different levels of pain depending where on the body they are, and the style of tattooing. On the day, your tattooist should help you deal with any nerves, make you as comfortable as possible, and allow breaks. So don’t worry too much - despite what your friends and family may be saying to wind you up!

Things we know help and which we recommend:

1. Eat a good meal around 2 hours before your tattoo appointment

A healthy meal with plenty of veg, and protein is the perfect preparation for a tattoo. Eating a couple of hours beforehand allows time for your food to settle, and healthy foods are less likely to leave you feeling bloated. Protein is important for recovery too as your body heals your tattoo. If you start your tattoo with low or fluctuating blood sugar, you’ll find the pain much less manageable.

2. Make sure you’re well rested and have had plenty of sleep the night before

Studies have shown that lack of sleep increases your sensitivity to pain. Lack of sleep can cause inflammation in the body, and leave you feeling stiff and achy. So, arriving with a few aches and pains will really impact on how long you are able to lie or sit in the same position before becoming uncomfortable, as well as making the tattooing itself feel more painful. Sleep deprivation also causes reduced immune system function, which is an essential part of your body’s response to a tattoo.

3. Meditate and stretch your body before your tattoo appointment

Meditation can be used to prepare for your tattoo, and also to help you manage pain during the tattoo.

If you can find time to try a quiet 10 minutes before your tattoo to meditate and stretch, you’ll find the experience more bearable. Not everyone is suited to meditation and like anything else, it takes practice and consistency to see benefits over time. However, we find that a lot of customers don’t give their tattoo, or the process much thought until they arrive. This means that the process can feel more of a shock to the system, compared to if you’ve given a little time to prepare mentally in some way. If meditation just isn’t for you, even just taking a small amount of time to mindfully pack everything you need, can make all the difference to how you’ll feel about it when you arrive, and how well you cope with the pain.

Once in the chair, the customers that deal with pain best, are the ones who are able to adapt to the energy in the room, and settle into the studio environment. The ones that have the toughest time, are the ones who push the pain away, fight it, and have their mind on questions like ‘how long will it take’?, ‘How much have you done?’, ‘How is it looking?’ Resisting the feeling of pain is the most natural thing, and we all naturally do this first, but it does tend to exacerbate pain and discomfort. If you’re able to use meditation to relax your mind and take it away from the tattoo, you’ll have a better experience.

4. Try to avoid planning your tattoo at a time when you know there will be a lot of other stressors in your life, or on a day where you have other plans with friends or family.

As we mentioned above, you really do need to be able to settle in and try to relax during your tattoo. We always find that anything that diverts your attention from this, leaves you with less energy and headspace to deal with the pain. To have a good overall experience you really do need to feel like you’ve been able to give the process and your consent your full attention. Going through a painful process, without giving yourself time to properly process it, is not recommended.

Waiting for exam results, moving house, going through a break up, having a turbulent time at home, - basically any kind of stress or trauma can cause customers to struggle more with the pain in our experience. 90% of the tattoos where we recommend customers to finish early, or sometimes even to come back another day altogether, are where they are visibly stressed or distracted and are not able to settle to deal with the pain.

We’d also include: bringing someone with you, having someone contacting you for updates during the tattoo, having someone waiting for you nearby, or waiting for you to contact them under the banner of distractions that make dealing with the pain worse. No matter how well meaning the other person is, it leaves your mind distracted thinking about if they are bored, ok, impatient, or worried.

5. If you menstruate, and usually suffer from strong period pains, consider avoiding booking your tattoo on the week of your period

This one will really be down to each individual. For many who menstruate, we have grown up to have a default setting of ‘just getting on with it’, when it comes to periods. However, increasingly we are learning to track and adapt our lifestyles in accordance with our cycle in order to get the best for ourselves. If you already know you’ll be in pain while on your period, it makes sense not to give your body extra to deal with that week. At another time of the month, you’ll probably find yourself coping loads better with the pain.

Things we don’t recommend:

1. Alcohol

The idea of alcohol numbing pain is hard wired into our thinking - it’s a much repeated idea in films, and we’re all familiar with the idea of using ‘alcohol to numb the pain’. But most tattoo studios will not tattoo you at all if you’ve had a drink. There’s a couple of reasons for this. Number 1 is (or should be!), consent. Simply, you can’t be said to have given your full and proper consent if your judgement is affected by alcohol. Alcohol and drugs change our perception of a situation, which in turn, impacts on our decision making process. Since there’s no magic number of drinks which = too many to consent, and everyone is different, your tattooist who probably has never met you before has no way of knowing to what extent alcohol has affected you. Marking your skin permanently is a big decision, so from the tattooist’s point of view, it’s just not worth taking the risk.

On top of this, alcohol has the effect of thinning the blood. So in practical terms, if you’ve had a skinfull, as soon as the tattoo begins, you’ll start to bleed a lot. This means that it’s pretty impossible for the artist to see what they are doing, and to get the ink to settle. It can lead to the skin being overworked if the artist is not experienced or conscientious enough to stop the process. Drinking the night before your tattoo has the same effect. So it’s best to save the drink as a nice reward afterwards.

2. Cannabis, cannabis oil and other recreational drugs

Again, as relaxing or as numbing as they can feel, we don’t recommend using them for pain management while having a tattoo. Tattooists should not tattoo you under the influence of alcohol or drugs. For us, any amount of either is a no-go, no matter how small. If you’re a regular cannabis user, you may be fairly open to the idea of using it as part of your lifestyle. But again, your artist has no way of knowing to what extent you’re affected by it, and therefore cannot say they have gained your consent.

We feel strongly that the casual use of and relaxed attitude towards alcohol and drugs within the tattooing industry, is a big problem when it comes to personal safety. It may seem fun and part of the ‘rock and roll’ package that people sometimes expect, but for many looking back on their experiences, it was used to blur the lines between professional and unprofessional conduct. Whilst it may well numb the pain, it may leave the customer feeling that they aren’t able to communicate how they want their tattoo to turn out, or worse, to object to or protect themselves from inappropriate behaviours.

Don’t let your motivation to avoid pain lead to you compromising your personal safety in an environment where you’re likely already going to be fairly exposed and have to place trust in your artist.

3. Prescription painkillers and sedatives

While it might be tempting to take painkillers before a tattoo to help with pain, some of these medications - especially Aspirin, thin your blood. This is dangerous for you, and will make it very difficult for your tattoo to be done. Blood thinners cause excessive bleeding - likely to result in your tattoo having to be postponed, or to your tattoo healing poorly.

Some tattooists do allow you to take Ibuprofen. Ibuprofen reduces the ability of your body to make prostaglandins, which is a chemical that promotes pain, inflammation and fever within your body. In our experience, the impact of taking ibuprofen and the shorter time scale over which it works, make the overall impact fairly negligible. For example, if you’re run down, tired, haven’t eaten, and are stressed, a couple of Ibuprofen is not going to make much difference to the pain.

Once you get into the territory of much stronger painkillers and sedatives, you’re back into ‘consent’ territory again. Yes, a valium will help with the pain, but it can also put you in the territory of being too out of it to consent.

4. Energy Drinks

Energy drinks like redbull and monster are stimulants which contain caffeine. Caffeine as we all know can give you a nice bit of energy and wake up the senses if we need a boost. However, they also increase your heart rate & blood pressure. If you’re already nervous, or even if you’re not too much caffeine will just make you feel more jittery and less able to sit still. In very rare cases, if you have severe anxiety, or you have a heart condition, using energy drinks can be really dangerous causing heart rhythm disturbances and even heart failure.

For the most part, they will just make you a bit of a wriggler! The more you move, the harder it is for your artist to tattoo you, and the longer a tattoo will take, Any involuntary twitches can result in the needle going in too deep and causing a blow out, or wobbly line, which is turn need to be corrected, leading to more time in the chair and more pain.

5. Numbing Cream

In a nutshell, in our humble opinion….just not worth the faff. Tattooists in the UK are not allowed to sell you numbing cream, so you’ll have to do your own research and get it yourself. There are loads of different ones which come with different application methods and different strengths. The ones available from UK pharmacies usually need to be applied around 30 minutes before and don’t last very long - so timing is crucial. But say for example you apply it before you arrive, and then spend longer than expected agreeing the design, are delayed travelling to the studio, or your artist is running behind for example, the effects can be gone before you actually get in the chair.

Numbing creams contain Lidocaine which is a local anaesthetic. Generally Lidocaine creams like EMLA are designed for minor medical procedures such as attaching a drip or needle stick pain from blood tests. So in terms of cosmetic procedures, they are much more suited to quick one off pain like a piercing.

Tattooing usually lasts longer than the effects of the cream, and at some point during the process, you’ll suddenly experience the pain without any help, which may come as a bit of a shock - rather than having let your body naturally adjust and deploy its own natural pain defence. You can't use numbing cream on broken skin, so it's a one time go, and once the tattoo starts you can’t reapply it.

There are much stronger versions available online (the reason that they are not available at UK pharmacies is that the levels of Lidocaine in them are high enough to warrant needing a prescription).

Some artists find that numbing cream makes the skin feel ‘rubbery’ or even makes the tattoo heal badly. There’s also no way of knowing how your body will act to the mix of numbing cream and tattoo ink. We recommend doing a patch test of the numbing cream about a week beforehand to make sure you're not allergic. Always let the artist know if you’re planning on using numbing cream - some may refuse to tattoo with it, but at the least, most will need to know so they can adjust the process for you.

Another thing we’d add is that if you numb the area getting tattooed, it's hard to know when your body has had enough, and to know when to call it a day.

So that's our roundup for you! We hope it's useful, and that you have a great tattoo experience. It can be tough without the right preparation, but ultimately it’s manageable and worthwhile in the end :)

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