Can a Tattoo Cause Nerve Damage?

You’re scheduled for a new tattoo, and you’re psyched! You’re anticipating your appointment and are excited about your upcoming artwork. It’s going to be great!

…But now you’ve started thinking about all the things that might go wrong and what risks you are taking.

The good news is: Tattooing in the 21st century is very safe. Most people who get tattooed never experience any complications, and their skin heals nicely.

However, is it possible to encounter problems after getting a tattoo. In rare instances, a tattoo can cause nerve damage.

If you’re concerned about receiving nerve damage from your upcoming tattoo, you’ve come to the right place! Read all about nerve damage, the symptoms, the likelihood of getting nerve damage, and more below.

What is nerve damage? What are the symptoms?

First, let’s discuss what nerves are. A nerve is a group of fibres, or axons, that contain neurons. These neurons use signals to relay messages from one body part to another, including to and from the brain.

We feel pain, temperature, pressure, and other sensations due to nerves. The fibres that make up the nerves are plentiful and extend from the spinal cord or brain to all parts of the body.

Now, back to nerve damage. Nerve damage is just what it sounds like: damage, or injury, to the nerves in a particular area of the body. Nerves are insulated with tissues, which help protect them from becoming damaged. However, they are delicate and can sustain injury from trauma or disease. When this happens, nerves have trouble sending and receiving messages.

Nerve health is very important and can affect different areas of your life. Generally, the main symptom of nerve damage is numbness. Sometimes, muscle weakness will occur in the affected portion of the body.

Additionally, tingling and a feeling of compression may be symptoms of damaged nerves. Occasionally, people will even experience sharp pains or feeling like they’ve been “shocked” if they have nerve damage.

What’s the tattoo process? How does the tattoo gun work on your skin?

When you go in for a tattoo, you will more than likely be excited to finalize your design. But that’s only the beginning! Once the design is chosen, your artist will usually make an outline for your skin.

Then, he will prepare the equipment and inks, along with sanitizing your skin for tattooing. He’ll apply the outline, and then he’ll be ready to begin using the tattoo machine.

The tattoo machine contains small needles which insert ink into your skin. The needles move up and down quickly, piercing the skin around 50 to 3,000 times per minute. Penetrating the skin repeatedly like this creates trauma, so your skin must go through a healing process afterwards.

The artist uses this machine to carefully place the tattoo ink into the skin, usually about 1.5 to 2 millimeters deep. Artists use the machine to tattoo bold lines, bright colors, and to do shading. Sometimes they change out the needles during the process, if necessary.

The tattoo session can take a few minutes or many hours, depending on the design and placement. Once your artist is finished, she will probably wrap the tattoo with a bandage and provide you with aftercare instructions.

How likely is it to get nerve damage?

Incurring nerve damage from getting a tattoo is extremely rare. However, it is not impossible.

Our skin is made up of three layers. The outer layer is the epidermis, and it contains three different types of cells. If your artist tattoos only your epidermis, your tattoo will fade away because of skin shedding.

The second layer is the dermis, which includes things like blood vessels, sweat glands, and collagen bundles. Tattoo artists must penetrate the upper portion of the dermal layer to create permanent results.

The third layer is the hypodermis, or the subcutaneous fat layer, and it contains collagen and fat cells. Tattoo artists should never reach this third layer.

If, for some reason, the tattoo artist does tattoo too deeply into the dermis or even reaches the hypodermis, nerve damage can occur. As a side note, tattoo blowout can also happen. This is when the ink is applied too deep (or the artist pressed too hard), and the ink spreads into different fat layers, blurring the tattoo.

Even if the artist doesn’t penetrate the skin too deeply, the needles are encountering nerves during the tattooing process. (This is why you experience pain.) So, technically, it is possible to receive nerve damage from even the best artist. It is important to note, though, that this is incredibly rare.

If you choose a reputable, professional artist that uses reliable equipment, chances are your tattoo will heal properly, and you shouldn’t encounter any nerve damage.

What areas of the body are more prone to nerve damage from tattoos?

There are a few areas of the body that have a higher risk for receiving nerve damage, although the risk is still relatively small. These areas generally have thin skin and lots of nerve endings.

If you choose to tattoo any of these areas, expect to experience additional pain. Also, it is important that you make sure that your artist is very experienced in working with these areas.

The following areas are more prone to nerve damage from tattoos:

  • Groin and private parts
  • Head, including ears
  • Face, including lips
  • Armpits
  • Knees and behind the knees
  • Elbows
  • Ankles and feet
  • Fingers and hands

On the flip side, there are a few areas of the body that are less likely to receive nerve damage when getting tattooed. They typically have more fat and fewer nerve endings.

These places have a smaller chance of receiving nerve damage:

  • Forearm
  • Outer area of the upper thigh
  • Outer bicep
  • Upper and lower back
  • Calves

If you are overly concerned about nerve damage, it might be best to pick one of the areas that is less likely to receive this type of damage.

Is it normal to feel tingling after a tattoo? Is this a sign of nerve damage?

Everyone knows new tattoos are sore for a few days, but is a tingling sensation normal? Well, the answer is yes and no.

If your tattoo is new, a “pins and needles” feeling can be normal. Your skin has just been through a lot of trauma, so some people do experience tingling.

However, if your tattoo is fully healed, your skin should no longer feel tingly. If it is, there is a possibility that you have received nerve damage.

If this is the case, you should consider making an appointment with your primary care provider to share your concerns. He should be able to confirm the diagnosis and guide you on your next steps.

If my nerves become damaged, is it possible for them to heal?

Nerves that have encountered great damage have more trouble healing. Thankfully, when nerves are damaged by a tattoo machine, the injury is usually light to moderate. The nerves may be only bruised or traumatized.

Oftentimes, if this is the case, nerves can recover and regenerate. This process typically takes about 6 weeks to 3 months, as they grow only about 1 millimeter per day.

As your nerves recover, you will probably notice tingling. You may even receive electric shock sensations, which can be irritating and uncomfortable. These sensations may seem to move around as the nerves heal. As the healing process progresses, these feelings should slowly diminish and finally subside.

Occasionally, people experience tingling long after the 3-month mark. Just as getting nerve damage is rare, this is even more uncommon.

When you get a tattoo, you do take a few risks. One risk you will encounter is the chance of nerve damage. Thankfully, the chances of this occurring to you are very slim. Choose a trustworthy, experienced tattoo artist and make sure to follow his aftercare instructions. You should be well on your way to an awesome piece of artwork (nerve damage free)!