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Another nursing urban legend: tattoos and pain


iStockphoto + Scrubs

So the other day I got my flu shot. Yep, I get it every year. Regardless of the folklore out there I’ll take every little bit of help I can get when it comes to fighting off any bout of the flu.
I was in line waiting my turn. I could hear the nurse give the ‘warning message’ each time she administered the injection, “A pinch and a burn…”. I honestly didn’t think anything of it.

My turn. I sit down, fill out the proper documentation and roll up my sleeve. Subconsciously I’m waiting to hear the warning message, but instead she pauses. She leans towards me and says, “Oh. I don’t have to warn you do I?”

Now I immediately thought she meant, oh you’re a nurse. So you know what I’m about to do.


Instead she goes on to say with a sarcastic chuckle, “This shouldn’t hurt a bit with all the artwork there. Right?”

She was referring to my tattoo. I have one on each of my upper arms.

I politely responded, “No, I’ll be fine. Thanks though!”

I walked away chuckling.

You’re probably wondering why I was chuckling? I walked out of the room thinking of a very popular urban legend in the nursing world:

There is an inverse relationship between the number of tattoos a patient has and their tolerance for pain.

So, the more tattoos a person has, the less tolerant they are of pain. Any pain. Or, put it another way, the more tattoos the more they whine (sorry for being so blunt).

Like you, I used to scoff at the mere thought of this. But then I worked in the PACU. I took care of many patients post operatively. I then continued to take care of surgical post-op patients during my time in the ICU, something I still do to this day. Let’s just say I’ve taken care of my fair share of patients who have had surgical procedures. As time progressed I noticed there was a sliver of truth to this urban legend. Maybe even more than just sliver.

I’m not here to dispute the definition of pain. I know that a patient’s pain is what they say it is, where they say it, when the say it is. All I’m saying is when we nurses see tattoos, we can’t help but wonder.

What do you think?

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