How Bad Do Spine Tattoos Hurt?

  • Written By Dan Hunter on November 22, 2020
    Last Updated: January 3, 2021

The spine is a popular, if slightly unorthodox, location for a tattoo. Your vertebrae’s curvature can accentuate the tattoo’s design to create an awesome appearance that combines body and ink. However, spinal tattoos pose unique challenges, including the possibility of increased pain.

Today we’re taking a closer look at what level of pain to expect with a spinal tattoo, plus ways to potentially mitigate the discomfort.

Do Spine Tattoos Hurt?

Unfortunately, the spine is typically considered one of the most painful spots on the body to get a tattoo for two reasons:

  • The spine contains multiple nerve endings.
  • The area includes lots of bones and thin skin.

The spinal cord is a bundle of nerves connecting your brain to the rest of your body. During tattooing, the needle can touch these nerves, resulting in pain signals. Interestingly, you won’t always experience pain at the point of contact with the needle. Instead, you might feel a buzzing sensation in seemingly random locations on your body, especially up and down your arms.  

Tattooing on top of bones, especially in areas with thin skin, is typically painful. Unfortunately, the spine is basically nothing but delicate skin and bones. In particular, the lower part of the spine is considered the most sensitive.     

What Does Spine Tattoo Pain Feel Like?

There’s no one type of pain that occurs during a spinal tattoo. Instead, you might feel a few different sensations during the session.

Burning Pain

The tattoo needle can feel hot against your skin. It’s typically a type of pain that develops throughout the day, occurring when the artist works on one section for an extended time.

Most people experience some burning pain, though it’s usually more irritating than excruciating. It’s more common if you have a large, detailed tattoo. Fortunately, burning pain is most likely to occur in areas of the body with high stores of fat, which means it’s usually minimal when getting a back tattoo.  

Stinging Pain

Sharp, stinging is usually the most painful type of sensation. It can cause you to pull away from the needle reflexively. Stinging pain is more common during detail work when the artist is using one needle.

While some stinging pain is expected, take note if it seems excessive. Inexperienced tattoo artists can hold the tattoo gun incorrectly, driving the needle too deep into the skin, causing stinging pain needlessly. You can wind up with a tattoo blowup, which is when the tattoo appears blurry.       

Dull Pain

A low, dull ache is actually the preferred type of pain to feel when getting a tattoo. Dull pain occurs when your body produces stress hormones, such as adrenaline. These hormones help damped sharp, stinging and burning pain.  

What Factors Influence the Amount of Pain You Feel?

The pain levels felt during a tattoo will vary considerably from person to person. A few factors which influence how you’ll feel including the following:

The Type of Tattoo

The size and type of tattoo affects how much pain you might experience. A large, detailed tattoo running down the length of your spine will obviously hurt more than a smaller tattoo in only one section on your back.

Additionally, placement also matters. As mentioned above, the lower back is typically more sensitive than areas along the upper spine.

Your Familiarity with Tattoos

If you’re getting a tattoo for the first time, spinal tattoos usually aren’t recommended. Instead, they’re usually a better idea for someone already familiar with the tattooing process. Studies show that people who already have tattoos have an easier time tolerating the pain during future sessions.

Do’s and Don’ts for Reducing the Pain of a Spine Tattoo

First, don’t take any over-the-counter anti-inflammatories without knowing the overall effects of what you’re taking. Many anti-inflammatories can thin your blood, which actually makes bleeding more likely to occur. Along those same lines, never get a tattoo if you’ve been drinking alcohol, as that also thins your blood (and massively distorts your rational thinking).

Do try to stay distracted. If possible, bring along a friend to talk to during the session. A simple conversation can help keep your mind off the pain. If you can’t bring along someone you know, try striking up a conversation with the artist.

Finally, don’t force yourself to sit longer than you feel comfortable. If you have a large tattoo, work out a schedule where you can take frequent breaks. Although this is a matter of personal preference, many people prefer to take a break every two hours or so.

Final Thoughts

Spine tattoos have a unique, stylish design, unlike anything else. However, they also include an increased risk of pain due to the thin skin and increased presence of bones and nerves. Fortunately, understanding what to expect and how to manage the pain can help significantly reduce stinging, burning and other unwanted sensations.

Don’t let a fear of pain keep you from the spine tattoo you want. By employing the techniques above, you can adorn your back, while remaining comfortable.

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