No matter how much you love the thrill of getting tattooed, it's hard to deny that it can be a painful process. Sure, the constant hammering of tattoo needles against your skin should eventually turn that sharp pain into a dull throb, but getting a tattoo can hurt a lot at first—especially if the work's being done in one of the most painful places to get a tattoo.
What are the more tender parts of the body to have tattooed? Let's count down the top 10 most painful places to get a tattoo, starting with the least of the most delicate spots and working our way up to #1:
- Thighs - There are two major nerves that run through your thighs, called the femoral nerve and the femoral cutaneous nerve. They branch off into tons of little nerve bundles that feed and control your quadriceps and other leg muscles. The placement of these nerves makes the inner thigh the most tender part of this overall area. Having the back of your thigh tattooed can also be painful because of the presence of a third nerve called the sciatic nerve. It's the biggest, longest single nerve in the whole body, and it runs down the back-center of your thigh.
- Joints - The ankles and both the fronts and backs of the knees and elbows are painful places to have tattooed for two reasons: First, with the exception of the inner elbows and backs of the knees, your joints tend to be bony, and it never feels good when tattoo needles hit bone. There are also some major nerves present in these areas, like the ulnar and median nerves, which run down the entire length of your inner arm. The inner elbow provides the least amount of padding between tattoo needles and those two nerves, making it an even more painful place to have tattooed than the knobby outer elbow. The same is true for the backs of the knees, because the sciatic nerve runs over them.
- Spine - Your spine is comprised primarily of nerves and bone, and nearly every major nerve in the body originates from some part of the spinal cord. Add pain signals from tattoo needles hitting your spine to the abundance of other sensory information being passed up to your brain, and you'll find that the spine is one of the most painful places to get a tattoo.
- Inner Arm - The elbow isn't the only part of the inner arm that it hurts to have tattooed. The inner forearm and upper underarm are also comprised of super-delicate, nerve-filled soft tissue. The two nerves that make the inner elbow so painful to have tattooed are the same nerves that branch out in the upper underarm and inner forearm and make these incredibly sensitive places to get a tattoo. This area's sensitivity is a huge part of why so many people only get 3/4-round tattoos on their biceps.
- Throat/Neck - A total of 20 major nerves run from the cervical spine and cranium to the front of the neck and throat to allow you to do everything from smile to turn your head to smell, hear, see, and taste. The soft tissue on the front of the neck (particularly over the windpipe) is the most sensitive part of this area, with the collarbone at the base of your neck being the second-most painful spot in this region to have tattooed due to the presence of bone close to the surface of the skin in addition to many nerve endings.
- Head/Face - Your spine may be nerve central, but your head is the second biggest nerve station in your body. There are 12 major cranial nerves that are responsible for manipulating all of your facial muscles and some of your neck muscles, and that allow you to sense things like temperature changes, scents and the taste of food, as well as to see and hear. There's also little fatty padding on the head, except in the cheeks and, for some, the chin. That means there's very little cushion between the surface of your skin and the many nerves throughout most of your head, making the impact of tattoo needles on this part of the body excruciatingly piercing.
- Hands & Feet - Our hands and feet are some of the boniest parts of our bodies, and they're also the end points for every single major nerve in the body. Since there isn't much padding in our feet or hands, getting them tattooed tends to hurt a lot, and tattoos don't always take well in these areas. The tops of the hands and feet are less of an issue than between the fingers and toes, the palms, and the soles of the feet. Often times tattoos in these areas need to be gone over repeatedly shortly after they're first done, and they usually have to be touched up every couple years thereafter because of friction and constant use of these body parts.
- Genitals & Groins - The many nerves in our genitals and groins play a big part in elimination, sex and procreation. The right touch can be electrifying in the most pleasant way, but the repeated pricks of tattoo needles can be electrifying in the opposite way. It should be no surprise that this area is one of the absolute most painful places to get a tattoo for men and women alike.
- Armpits - Armpit tattoos are an iffy investment, due to sweating and the constant friction of skin-on-skin. If you decide to risk it and get an armpit tattoo, brace yourself for some serious pain. The two major nerves that run down your arm pass through this area, as well as the axillary nerve that controls your deltoids, triceps, and some other smaller muscles in this region. Add to that all the tender glands you have in your armpits, and it's no wonder that this is one of the top two most painful parts of the body to have tattooed.
- Ribcage - Take a deep breath, and let it out. Notice how your entire ribcage expands and contracts. Now think about how thin the tissue over your ribs really is, with little-to-no fatty padding in between, and how much thinner it gets when you breathe in and your ribcage expands. The ribcage is widely thought to be the #1 most painful place to get a tattoo for these reasons and due to the presence of so many nerve endings. Getting a rib tattoo can be so painful for some that even the toughest guys turn into blubbering babies. If you really want to get a tattoo in this part of your body, brace yourself for some serious pain. Don't do anything crazy, like try to hold your breath until your tattoo artist finishes. It may hurt like a b*tch to get a tattoo over your ribs, but you'll live.
Managing the Pain of Getting a Tattoo
For many, getting a tattoo is all about the pain, but for others, fear of pain can be an inhibitor that keeps them from getting the tattoo of their dreams. If you're concerned that getting tattooed anywhere will drive you over the edge, whether it's the most or least painful place to get a tattoo, consider using a topical anesthetic to make the process more bearable. Products like Dr. Numb and Derma Numb contain numbing lidocaine in an over-the-counter strength (usually around 5%). If you apply it to the area where you want to get tattooed 30-45 minutes before your artist gets started, the surface of your skin should be pretty well numbed at first. You can ask your artist to apply more topical anesthetic at any point, but you may not need anymore once you get comfortable with the process and the numbing effect of the tattoo needles themselves sets in.
Also keep in mind that anxiety heightens all of our senses, including pain, so it's important to stay as calm as possible throughout the tattooing process. If it would help you tune out what's going on and relax, your tattoo artist probably won't be offended by you wearing headphones while s/he works. You might also try relaxation exercises like deep breathing or controlled muscle contraction, where you focus on tightening and then relaxing one part of your body at a time, moving slowly from the muscles of your face down to your toes. As silly as it may sound, even drinking a warm cup of milk or hot chamomile tea beforehand can help you relax. The only thing you absolutely shouldn't do to relax is drink alcohol. If your artist smelled it on your breath, s/he could very well refuse to tattoo you. Alcohol thins the blood and makes clotting harder, so it can be a real health risk for you and a liability for your tattoo artist. Plus, it might lead you to make a regrettable decision about what tattoo you get or where you get it. Rely on natural remedies, willpower and maybe a friendly hand to squeeze to get you through getting tattooed.
To learn more about all the individual parts of our bodies where tattoos tend to hurt most as well as the anatomy behind what makes certain spots the most or least painful places to get a tattoo, read our full-length article, The Most Painful Places to Get a Tattoo.