5 Tips for Getting Tattoos When You Live With Fibromyalgia
I have fibromyalgia, a chronic pain condition that causes widespread pain and response to pressure on the body (I can feel the finger marks of someone for hours or even days if my arm is grabbed, for example). Fibromyalgia comes with a host of other symptoms, including an overactive immune system, the potential for nerve damage, fatigue, digestive issues and more. My flares often feel similar to the flu but with no relief and much longer lasting. Knowing that I have fibromyalgia pain that affects my soft tissues and muscles, you may be surprised to find out I also have six tattoos.
My first tattoo was when I was 18 or 19, a very small pink triangle on my shoulder. My second tattoo was at 35, after I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and knew a little something about living with chronic pain and a hypersensitive body. That tattoo is on the opposite shoulder, of a decent size (not quite large, but not small), and the product of an emotional upheaval and major life loss. When I went to arrange the appointment I spoke with the artist and let him know that I would probably cry the whole time because of both the reason for the tattoo and my pain condition. I recalled that when I got my first tattoo I had crushed my friend’s hand, shocked at how much such a tiny bit of ink could hurt. I expected horrific pain with the second tattoo. But that’s not what happened.
My second artist was a gentle young guy with a light touch. I watched him work the entire three hours and we chatted about… well, everything. I felt comfortable and safe with him, and I remember being surprised by that fact in particular because he was a young hip white guy, and in my experience they tend to be pretty rude to fat Brown femme queers like me. I don’t even remember what all we spoke about that day. I do recall talking in more detail about the reason for the tattoo, telling him about my son, and he in turn telling me about his family’s fishing and shrimping business being devastated by the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill. I walked out feeling kinda high, to be honest. The tattoo was beautiful work, it hadn’t hurt, and I had made a new connection. That tattoo also healed really well and six years later it still looks brand new.
My next tattoo was a year and half later. I went back to the same shop but that artist had moved out of town so I got another guy who was willing to fit me in right then for a small amulet-style piece of my own art on my shoulder below the pink triangle. It was an experience in between my first two times. It was nowhere near as terrible as I remembered the first one, but not quite as pleasant as the second. I didn’t mind the artist, but there was no connection there. The tattoo scabbed up more than the second one had, despite being so much smaller, and the ink didn’t take perfectly so I have some skin showing through in a couple of tiny spots.
My final three tattoos are all by one artist, another new friend found via the recommendation of my brother and my son who had both had work done by him. Two of the tattoos are on my upper arms (one behind and below the second piece, the other below the two tiny tattoos on the other shoulder.) One of the tattoos is my own artwork on the back of my neck and inked over the top of my spine. None of them hurt, they each healed easily, and they all look pretty good two years later but could use some touch ups. The one on my neck is the only one during which I felt a couple of mild twinges of discomfort, and it was when he was near the bone at the top of my spine.
I’ve been asked by others who live with fibromyalgia if tattoos are a good idea and what to expect. The truth is, that varies for everyone whether they have fibromyalgia or not. We all have different pain tolerance levels, for example, though some people living with chronic pain find their pain tolerance increases. Others have even said the controlled and chosen pain of a tattoo or other body modification is a kind of release and relief from the chronic pain. I’ve been lucky because I found a couple of artists who don’t dig in with the needle or lean on me while working, and those things make a huge difference. While I say I did not experience pain with mine, I have intentions to get more in places where pain is much more likely, such as my chest and my face. For those considering if they want to try, here is my advice:
- Choose an artist you feel really emotionally & physically safe with and who has a reputation for a soft touch. I feel about my artists the way many feel about their hairdressers: it is an intimate relationship of sorts, especially because I can’t stand to be touched by just anyone.
- Tell the artist your situation up-front, and that you may have to stop or have shorter sessions to handle it, or you may find you’d like to power through at one time. Let them know you don’t necessarily know what sensations you’ll be having or how you’ll be feeling because of your illness. If you’ve already completed the first suggestion you will feel a lot more comfortable with this suggestion, and I think likely find that the artists are very understanding.
- Make appointments when you feel good and be sure to know what the cancellation/reschedule policy is so you can honor it if needed. I prefer to go to artists that I can say “I wanna do this tomorrow” and drop a deposit that day on or who can fit me in the same day, not waiting a week out when I have no idea what I might feel like then.
- Make sure you are really well hydrated, have eaten, slept decent, etc so that you feel fairly decent and are less likely to be weakened for the tattoo to cause a flare up of the fibro — this is not foolproof or guaranteed to mean you won’t have pain or cause a flare, but it does improve your chances and is worth the trying.
- Follow the aftercare instructions to take good care of your healing tattoo & continue to look after your other needs so that you lessen the likelihood of a flare up during that healing process. It is a common effect of fibromyalgia to find that your body doesn’t take some of the ink as well and needs touch-ups, or that the healing process is slower.