Epidurals and Tattoos: A Complete Guide

  • Written By Dan Hunter on November 5, 2020
    Last Updated: November 27, 2020

Pregnancy is a unique experience that poses a distinct set of challenges. While it can be one of the most joyful times in a woman’s life, it can also be full of worrisome bodily changes. First-time mothers can feel fearful and panicky as birth approaches.

For many, the cure for pre-birth anxiety is knowledge. Understanding more about the birth process is a fantastic way to help yourself be prepared for a little one’s arrival. For example, many women opt for pain-relieving epidurals. 

However, those with lower back tattoos may wonder if epidurals will still be safe. This article will address everything you need to know about getting an epidural on tattooed skin, including when it’s best to decide against the tattoo.


What is an Epidural?

An epidural is a pain-relieving medical procedure often employed to help laboring women or post-surgery patients experience fewer painful symptoms. It is a relatively painful procedure to its focus on the body’s spinal nerves.

However, epidural’s pain-relieving effects can begin to set in after only 10 minutes. Anesthesiologists administer epidurals to help patients overcome extreme forms of pain for brief periods. 

Who Might Need an Epidural?

As mentioned above, there are two primary types of people who might need an epidural. They are:

  • Pregnant women who are in labor
  • Patients leaving surgery

However, individuals with chronic pain and inflammation may also receive epidural injections to help lessen that pain. In most cases, epidurals are performed during labor (but before childbirth) or directly after surgery.

How Does an Epidural Work?

A catheter-based epidural provides a comprehensive and useful anesthetics pipeline to a person’s spinal column. The spine contains several bundles of nerves and functions as the nervous system’s primary highway. 

Using anesthetics to block nerve signals can completely prevent pain without causing patients to lose complete feeling in the lower bodies. This allows someone under the epidural effects to slowly walk and move around while remaining immune to the strongest of pain signals.

Can a Lower Back Tattoo Impair an Epidural?

In some cases, a lower back tattoo could impair an epidural. However, most women with lower back tattoos can safely and effectively receive an epidural before giving birth. That said, there are other, unrelated reasons a physician or nurse may decide against performing an epidural.

Still, there are two primary reasons why a lower back tattoo might hinder an epidural. A medical professional may judge an epidural to be unsafe if:

  1. The lower back tattoo is fresh and still healing
  2. The tattoo is raised, scaly, or infected

While small amounts of tattoo ink can migrate through the bloodstream or lymphatic system after a session, these amounts are typically minuscule and harmless. An epidural performed atop infected or recently tattooed skin could result in deeper infections and spinal or nerve-related complications.

If you’re about to give birth or undergo surgery, it’s often best to postpone any tattoo sessions you may have scheduled. Getting your ink done after having your baby or successfully recovering from surgery could help lower your risk of suffering from an unexpected infection or a blood-transmitted illness like HIV.

Some individuals may also develop a small epidural scar near the point of catheter insertion, especially after back surgery. This scar tissue will change the appearance of any tattoo on the underlying skin. As such, a healthy lower back tattoo might not impair the epidural procedure, but an epidural may damage a tattoo.

Special Considerations

If you have a lower back tattoo and are considering a pre-birth or post-surgery epidural, your physician may choose to alter their plans to accommodate your tattoo. Most anesthesiologists will puncture an inkless patch of skin along the lower back. 

Any gaps in your tattoo’s design could ensure that your practitioner can perform a standard epidural. If the spinal area is entirely tattooed, the anesthesiologist may attempt to locate a more feasible site. 

In the worst-case scenario, a medical professional may judge it unsafe or impractical to administer an epidural to a heavily tattooed lower back area. Fortunately, an epidural isn’t the only option for pregnant women or post-surgery patients. 

Non-opioid analgesics, nitrous oxide, and alternative forms of local anesthetics may still be an option. Be sure to consult with your healthcare provider about any potential safety or pain-relief concerns you may have

Conclusion

While lower back tattoos can complicate the epidural process, having one doesn’t necessarily exclude you from getting an epidural. Healthy tattoos that finished healing long ago tend to allow for standard epidurals. It may also be helpful if the tattoo design allows for plenty of ink-free skin to peek through.

However, if you’ve recently gotten a tattoo (or you have an infected tattoo), you may need to opt for an alternative form of pain relief. Still, your health care provider can describe potential treatment methods that may work best for you.