Body art and musculoskeletal conditions: what you need to know

December 9, 2021 by Lisa Bywaters

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Once considered edgy and a little dangerous, piercings and tattoos are now mainstream. It’s almost more difficult to find a person who hasn’t got one than someone who does. ?

Piercings and tattoos are the most common examples of body art; however, body art also includes branding, scarification, dermal anchors and three-dimensional art or body modifications.

Many of these practices can be dated back thousands of years, but in the last few decades, we’ve seen their popularity soar, especially for piercings and tattoos.

This article will focus on piercings and tattoos and what you need to consider before facing the pointy end of a needle if you have a musculoskeletal condition.

Musculoskeletal conditions, tattoos and piercings – what’s the big deal?

If you have any condition that affects your immune system, or you take medications that suppress your immune system, you’re at increased risk of developing an infection any time your skin is broken, like when you get a tattoo or piercing. These conditions and medications may also affect the time it takes you to heal.

For people with psoriatic arthritis and/or psoriasis, any damage or trauma to their skin – such as a tattoo or piercing – has the potential to cause lesions. This is known as the Koebner phenomenon. Find out more about it here.

Other things to be mindful of if you have a musculoskeletal condition, specifically when it comes to tattooing, are:

  • They take time. Depending on the tattoo’s size, it can take anywhere from 30 minutes to many hours to complete the design. For big tattoos, this may be scheduled over several sessions. That’s a long time to sit still, sometimes in an uncomfortable position, if you have chronic pain and stiffness.
  • Tattoo placement. Avoid tattooing over joints. A tattoo could potentially make joint injections or joint surgery more complicated. Swollen joints will also affect the look of the tattoo, as can future surgery. So best to avoid the joints.
  • They’re painful. I know, I know, living with a musculoskeletal condition is painful, and we’re all warriors when it comes to battling that foe. However, this is a different type of pain. It feels hot and scratchy, as if someone’s stabbing you with high-speed needles over and over while injecting ink into your skin for hours. Oh, wait…?.

Things you can do to manage these issues

  • Talk with your doctor/specialist. This is #1. Before you go anywhere near a needle, discuss it with your doctor or specialist. Is it safe for you, at this current time, with your specific health condition? Is your condition well managed? What about your medications? Will they impact your current ability to get a tattoo or piercing? If you have meds delivered via injection or infusion, do you need to time your tattoo or piercing around them? And if so, what’s the best timing? Be frank and open about your desire to get a tatt or piercing, but also listen to their expert opinion about what they think is best for your health. And it may be that now isn’t the right time. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t ever get tattooed or pierced.
  • Only use a professional, licensed/registered tattooist or piercer. The regulations around licensing/registration differ in each state and territory, but you can find information about what to look for on your government’s health website.
    Other things to look out for: When you visit the premises, they should be clean (as should the person who’s about to work on you). They should follow strict protocols to ensure all instruments and surfaces are disinfected and sanitary. They should wear gloves and use needles from a sealed pack. For more information, read The Australian Department of Health article, Healthy body art.
  • Take your time to find someone you’re comfortable with. They’re about to be up close and personal with you, whether it’s for a short time with a piercing or a long time with a tattooist. And they’re potentially going to see parts of your body that don’t often see the light of day. So you should feel relaxed and comfortable. You can also take someone with you for moral support (however, this may depend on COVID density limits: check with your tattooist or piercer).
  • Take your time choosing your tattoo design/s and placement. You’re going to live with them for a long time. What may have seemed like a great idea when you were in your 20s may not be as impressive when you’re 60. Our tastes and interests change over time, as does our body. So consider how the design will age with you and how your body will age with the tattoo.
  • Keep it clean. Follow the aftercare information you’re given for your tatt or piercing. That means cleaning them as directed, avoiding activities that will irritate the skin and the open wound. Because that’s what we’re dealing with here – an open wound that has the potential to become infected. Healthline has some general information about tattoos and piercing, including aftercare. The Australian Department of Health article, Healthy body art also has some helpful info on aftercare.
  • Be proactive in managing the pain. If you’re concerned about the pain factor, talk with your doctor or pharmacist about a topical anaesthetic you can use before getting a tattoo and whether it’s right for you.
  • Start small. If it’s your first tattoo, don’t dive straight in and go for a full sleeve ?. Start with a small design. That’ll give you the chance to see how you react to getting tattooed – from managing the pain and sitting still, to how quickly you heal. Tattoo artists aren’t going anywhere – so there’s always time to go back for more ?.
  • Avoid alcohol. We’ve all heard stories of people getting a tatt or piercing when they’re intoxicated. But you really, really want to avoid doing this. First – you’re likely to be turned away. Responsible practitioners won’t work on you if you’re visibly impaired. It’s just too risky. Second – your decision-making won’t be your best. I’m sure it seemed hilarious at the time to get a Winnie the Pooh tattoo (true story ?), but will you really want it after your head’s cleared? And finally – the blood. Drinking alcohol before your tattoo will increase the bleeding at the site. A little bleeding during and immediately after getting a tattoo is normal – it’s a wound after all. But alcohol will increase this. It can also slow down healing.

Infections

For most people, getting a tattoo or piercing is entirely safe if done by an experienced professional. However, sometimes things can go wrong, so it’s essential to know the signs of infection. They include:

  • increasing pain at the site
  • warmth and/or swelling at the site
  • pus and/or redness at the site
  • feeling hot or cold, or developing a fever.

If you experience any of these symptoms, contact your doctor. Or call Healthdirect from anywhere in Australia on 1800 022 222 to speak with a registered nurse 24/7.

Contact our free national Help Line

If you have questions about managing your pain, your musculoskeletal condition, treatment options, mental health issues, COVID-19, telehealth, or accessing services be sure to call our nurses. They’re available weekdays between 9am-5pm on 1800 263 265; email (helpline@msk.org.au) or via Messenger.

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