Getting tattooed is about so much more than sticking ink into a person's skin. Really, it's a complex process both physically and mentally. In fact, the creepy things that happen to your brain & body when you get a tattoo might surprise the most devoted of tattoo collectors. The body responds to the feelings of pain and anticipation in some fascinating and surprising ways.
Tattooing has tremendously increased in popularity in recent years. At least four out of ten adults aged 18 to 69 in the United States have a tattoo, according to a 2017 survey from Statista. Whether they're paying homage to a loved one or acting as a form of artistic or personal expressions, tattoos are bigger than ever.
Although more and more people are going under the tattoo machine these days, the way the body reacts to tattooing in the moment is still mysterious. To learn more, Romper spoke with Dr. James Giordano, Professor of Neurology at Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, DC. Because his research examines the neurological processes of pain and pleasure, he served as an excellent resource for this piece. Basically, tattooing affects the body and brain, and it can also be a deeply personal outlet for artistic expression. With so many factors going on at once, getting tattooed is anything but simple.
1. Brain Releases Natural Painkillers
The body doesn't only produce feelings of pain when the tattoo machine goes to work. "When subjected to painful stimuli, specific nerve cells in the spinal cord, brain stem and higher brain centers release a number of chemicals, such as the endogenous opioids (eg.- enkephalins, endorphins and dynorphin), as well as serotonin and norepinephrine, to decrease pain transmission," says Dr. Giordano. Basically, the endorphins help diminish pain and increase feelings of pleasure, as explained in Everyday Health.
2. Skin Gets Stabbed A Lot
Sure, this point is obvious. But the tattoo needle punctures skin at a rate of 50 to 3,000 times per minute, according to The International Dermal Institute. That's a lot of tiny stabs.
3. Feelings Of Pleasure Take Over
The release of opioids and serotonin can trigger the release of dopamine, a brain chemical associated with even greater feelings of pain relief. [Dopamine] "may elicit feelings of reward, satisfaction and reward... all of which may constitute a perception of pleasure (or at very least, the 'sense of relief')," says Dr. Giordano.
4. Skin Gets Wounded
It's easy to forget this part of the tattooing process. But getting a tattoo does mean wounding the skin on purpose, as explained in Healthline. It's creating thousands of tiny, tiny wounds wherever the ink goes. Weird, right?
5. You Might Feel A "High" From Brain Chemicals
Instead of simply blocking pain, these brain chemicals can also contribute to feelings of genuine pleasure. In fact, they can almost produce a "high" feeling, as Dr. Giordano explains. Perhaps this explains why some people report feeling addicted to tattoos, as noted in Psychology Today. For some people, it just feels good.
6. The Ink Can Travel
All that pigment doesn't stay right under your skin. As it turns out, tattoo ink can travel throughout the body over time, even ending up in the lymph nodes, according to a study in Scientific Reports. Whether this may lead to health concerns later on remains to be seen.
7. You Might Get Psyched Up About The Pain Factor
Worrying about the pain of tattooing might be worse than the actual physical pain itself. "Anticipation of pain can alter the perception of discomfort. For some, an exaggerated expectation that the tattoo will hurt, can be met by a pleasant surprise when the actually inked," says Dr. Giordano. Basically, the whole process of getting tattooed can feel pleasant and rewarding to a person, even when you're actually getting stabbed with a tiny needle thousands of times.