Can Getting A Tattoo Cause Nerve Damage?

  • Written By Dan Hunter on November 15, 2019
    Last Updated: November 8, 2020

Before you even contemplate the design and location of a new tattoo, you’ve probably already wondered how safe it is to actually get one. If you’re worried about there being a risk of nerve damage, we’ll try to put your mind at rest. 

Nerve damage is not typically an issue when you have a tattoo. An experienced tattoo artist knows how far to inject the needle into your skin to avoid unnecessary damage. And, the human body was created pretty well by ensuring nerves and arteries are placed deep to protect them.  However, depending on where you have a tattoo, nerve stimulation can vary.


The Tattooing Process

To understand why the risk of nerve damage is minimal, you first need to know what happens to your body when you’re being tattooed. 

Ask anyone who’s had a tattoo and they’ll readily admit it’s a procedure that comes with a certain amount of pain. How much pain depends on several factors:

  • Tattoo placement and location
  • The skill of the tattoo artist
  • Individual pain threshold

As you know, tattooing is a process in which ink gets injected into the lower layers of your skin. Traditionally, a tattoo artist would have done this by hand, but modern artists use a machine. Using a machine allows the tattoo artist to inject the skin only as far as is necessary, thereby reducing the risk of nerve damage (and blood vessel damage, etc).

The motor in the tattoo machine moves the needle up and down, and it pricks your skin, anything between 50 and 3,000 times per minute. As the needle pricks your skin, it drags the ink down into the dermis layer.

The further into the skin the needle is injected, the higher the risk of nerve damage. An experienced tattoo artist knows exactly how far to go. 

The ink has to be deposited into the dermis layer because the epidermis, the layer above, is continually renewing itself. Ink in this layer won’t last very long. For your design to be permanent, it has to be deposited into the layer underneath – the dermis.

Inject the needles any further than the dermis layer of skin, and you run the risk of nerve damage as well as tattoo blowout.

The Chance of Getting Nerve Damage is Extremely Small

Although unlikely, it is possible to get nerve damage, because the tattoo artist is injecting ink into your skin, and there is always room for error, no matter how small. It is an invasive procedure that deserves respect and should not be taken lightly. How deep the tattoo needle goes affects the amount of pain you feel and also determines the level of risk of nerve damage.

Skin layers include:

  • Epidermis: The outermost layer that acts as a waterproof, breathable barrier
  • Dermis: Contains hair follicles, sweat glands, blood vessels, and sensory nerve endings
  • Hypodermis (subcutaneous tissue): made of fat and connective tissue

If you choose an experienced tattoo artist with an excellent reputation, nerve damage shouldn’t be an issue. A well-trained and experienced artist knows just how deep to inject the tattoo machine needle into the skin. Ideally, it should be no more than 1/16th of an inch.

There are places on your body where nerve damage is more likely to occur. Coincidentally, these are also the parts of your body that can be the most painful to get tattooed because they have the most bundles nerve endings. They include:

  • Groin
  • Behind the knees
  • Head, face, and ears
  • Lips
  • Hands, feet, fingers, and toes
  • Elbows

What You Should be Wary of When Having a Tattoo

Nerve damage is typically not an issue, but there are other potential risks to consider before you get a tattoo:

Ink Allergy

Ink allergies aren’t common, but you won’t know you’ve got one until you’ve had a tattoo. An article in the Journal of Cutaneous and Aesthetic Surgery refers to such issues.

The onset of symptoms can occur days, weeks, or even years after being inked, with allergic disorders including:

  • Allergic dermatitis
  • Photoallergic reaction
  • Granulomatous reactions

Conceals Signs of Skin Cancer

To prevent this from happening, choose a place on your skin where there are no moles or birthmarks. Alternatively, you can check in with your doctor before getting tattooed.

Risk of Bacterial Infection

A freshly inked tattoo is an open wound. This means it’s opening your body up to all kinds of bacterial infections. Bacteria, such as streptococcus pyogenes and staphylococcus aureus can lead to septicemia, impetigo, erysipelas, and cause rare toxic shock syndrome.

Complications During Medical Procedures

Having an MRI is not something you will be mulling over when lying in the tattoo artist’s chair. However, tattoos done with metal-based ink can react with magnetic resonance imaging equipment. A reaction is rare, but it might be worth asking the tattoo artist to use inks that aren’t metal-based. 

Other Reactions

It’s possible to experience a range of other reactions, for example:

  • Rash
  • Fever
  • Chills 
  • Sweats
  • High fever

If you have any concerns, see your doctor straight away.

Nerve Damage From a Tattoo is Very Rare

An experienced tattoo artist knows how deep to go with the tattoo needle, thereby removing the risk of damaged nerves. There’s nothing wrong with getting your body inked, as long as you’re fully aware of the risk involved.

While there may seem to be many risks associated with getting a tattoo, the vast majority of procedures end up completely problem-free. As long as you’re diligent in your search for a qualified tattoo artist working out of a fully licensed studio, your tattoo journey should end up working out just fine.