Tips & Tricks

Tattoos and You!

Tattoos, although not for everybody, are a wonderful form of expression for some people. I love tattoos with meaning, and hearing the stories behind them. When I was in treatment for my eating disorder, my twin sister got my childhood nickname (“Xa”) tattooed behind her right ear, and later I got her initials behind mine. For us, it’s a way of keeping the other close and a symbol of our love for one another, not only as sisters but as best friends. (Cheesy, I know. But I love our little ink!)

For those of you lymphies who are thinking about getting inked, there are certain things to keep in mind. The process of getting a tattoo has its risks, such as infection, allergic reactions, MRI complications, and blood borne diseases. It’s really, really important to make sure that the tattoo parlor you go to is clean and that they sterilize their equipment!

When you have lymphedema, however, there are a couple more warnings to consider before getting your tattoo:

  • Needles. Anytime a needle sticks the skin, it’s an invitation for infection. When you get tattooed, you are getting stuck with a needle many, many times over, and the risk is that much greater. If the skin is broken, you run the risk of seepage, which is caustic to surrounding skin tissue.
  • Stress. Tattooing puts a lot of added stress on your lymphatic system, as 90% of the dye goes into the lymph nodes and stays there.
  • Distortion. The swelling caused by lymphedema can seriously stretch out and distort your tattoo, making it look pretty weird and therefore regrettable.
  • Removal. The laser treatments used to remove tattoos can be harmful to tissues that are already damaged by the lymphedema.
    (LymphNotes.com)

Your lymphedema limb is immunocompromised, which means it can’t adequately fight bacteria and infections. Even if you get your tattoo in a spot that’s not affected, there is the potentiality that it can travel through your system and end up in your affected area. Additionally, bacteria thrives in a protein-rich environment, like lymphorrhea (the fluid that collects in lymphedema limbs), which can cause seepage and infections.

My opinion? You should avoid getting a tattoo anywhere on or near your affected limb(s), and make sure you get it at a place that’s legitimate and clean.

Do any of you have tattoos? Did they affect your lymphedema? Please share your experiences in the comments below!

38 comments on “Tattoos and You!

  1. Julie Bauer

    So glad you posted this! I was actually thinking about getting a new tattoo and now I might think otherwise. Might not be worth it…..

    • I know, I wanted another one too! But after researching it, it seems risky. What is your tattoo of?

    • Just an hr ago I received my fifth tattoo, on my mum finding out she sent me this link, I have lymphie issues in both of my legs, I had never been warned about anything to do with tattoos, but I didn’t have any issues with the tattoos on my back and that was 3 years ago now, I guess it’s personal decision, I will never get any leg pieces done as I feel that to be asking for problems but unless I have issues with my new tattoos, I’ll be getting more on my upper body :)

      • Destinee

        Destinee // May 10, 2016 at 6:03 pm // Reply
        I have lymphedema in both legs also and I was wondering if you have gotten anymore tattoos since then and have they effected you in any way with your lymphedema. I really wanna get a tattoo on my chest but I’m unsure cause I don’t know what it will do with my lymphedema

  2. I have a tattoo on my stomach. At the time that I got it, I wasn’t aware of it being a problem for lymphies. Once I learned of the problems it could pose, I felt ashamed for having one. Even though it’s not in an area where there are lymph nodes, I think it may have made me more susceptible to infections because the lymphatic system may have to work harder to clear out toxins.

    • Destinee

      I have lymphedema in both legs also and I was wondering if you have gotten anymore tattoos since then and have they effected you in any way with your lymphedema. I really wanna get a tattoo on my chest but I’m unsure cause I don’t know what it will do with my lymphedema

  3. I got a tattoo of a phoenix on the top left of my back. I got it in between surgeries and its in the same quadrant that my lymph nodes are gone. I didn’t develop lymphedema for over a year after the tattoo. The lymphedema started when i had breast reconstruction done, but maybe the tattoo contributed. The lymph specialist I saw asked why I had got the tattoo there, and didn’t I know that put extra stress on my system? Well, no I did not because one told me of the risks about lymphedema. Education is an important part of this new life and the medical people often fail to disclose these possible side effects. I am not sure why that is. And I found it very frustrating to learn about so many things “after the fact”. Seems kinda backwards to me.
    I am not regretting my tattoo or my reconstruction and my arm swelling is manageable at this point. I will probably get some more tattoos in the future but I think they will be small or broken into small projects to keep the stress down. I try to eat right, exercise, keep my weight down and wear my compression sleeves. I recently bought a rebounder trampoline and it really seems to help. Unfortunately, I am having a hard time incorporating it into my schedule.
    I hope to hear from others about their tattoo experiences and lymphedema too!
    Thanks for the education!

  4. I have lymphodema in both my legs, I have four tattoos on my shoulders. I had lymphodema for 12 years in my legs I’m 21 years old now, and I haven’t anymore problems with tattooing and with the lymphodema. it hasn’t gotten worst then what it is now. Thanks for the education about this I want a tattoo on my leg for my pop’s that died before I was born and my grandfather’s, but i see there is risk one day before the end I might end up doing it but seems like not right now.

  5. Thanks for the info, i found out that i have lymphedema 3 days ago and just realised that the tattoo of my ex-boyfriend’s name that i had meaning to get covered up won’t be possible. I’m gutted! Why do i always put things off?! I got lymphie after radiotherapy for cervical cancer.

  6. Thanks for the info, i found out that i have lymphedema 3 days ago and just realised that the tattoo of my ex-boyfriend’s name that i had meaning to get covered up won’t be possible. I’m gutted! Why do i always put things off?! I got lymphedema after radiotherapy for cervical cancer.

  7. Sorry i did that twice oops!

  8. Michele West

    I have lymphedema in my left leg. I decided to get a tattoo of an autism butterfly on my wrist area as it was furthest away from my leg. I have since developed redness, tenderness, and it is warm to the touch. I went to the doctor 3 days ago and he put me on 100 mg of doxycycline hyclate. It has not helped and the area is still sore and red. I am going to call for an appointment to go back this afternoon. I suspect cellulitis. I feel really dumb about getting the tattoo now but it’s a little too late now.

    • I am considering getting a tattoo, please tell me what happened. Did it heal?

  9. Thank you for posting all this good information without being preachy. I was intrigued by the lovely p-ink.org pictures of post-mastectomy tattoos. I’m glad I looked here first.

  10. This is a good little forum. I guess its a hard decission for each individual. I really want a tat but my left leg is so very bad with lymphie and im about to undergo radiation and chemo again

  11. I had my right breast off due to cancer in2007 I developed lymphedema in my right arm gone over my shoulder causing spongalousis in my kneck down my left arm I haven’t had a blood test with this arm blood pressure test in that arm I had chemo and radio they took my lymph nodes away do you think I can have a small tattoo on my arm in the middle about 6’by 2′ inches please help thank you so much

    • Answer please

      • Hi, Janet,
        I am not a doctor but I would advise against getting a tattoo on your affected limb. That could potentially cause unnecessary trauma to the lymphatic vessels. Could you get it on your other arm instead?
        Good luck!

  12. I am curious about tattoos and lymphedema… I can’t seem to find any solid answers about yes or no to tattoos after lymphedema, just people not suggesting it (sounds like they wouldn’t support tattoos without it either)
    Anyway, I have lymphedema in my right thigh. I was in a car accident two years ago, I cut across the top of the thigh and had a few surgeries on it to save the leg, it started about 6 months after the accident and the swelling just accumulates around my knee. I have lots of tattoos, but have not had one since the accident. I would like to get a tattoo on the side of my thigh to detract from the scar, its not swollen there but what would happen if I did?

    What about tattoos in other areas?

    • I agree Sarah. I have research and I can’t find a solid answer. I would love to get a tattoo on my shoulder blade but I’ve had lymph nodes removed from that side. I’m not sure if getting a tattoo on that side would be bad or not. Anyone have any ideas?

  13. iv had cancer 3 times I have lymph edema in both legs and I got a tattoo on my arm and I’m peachy fine

  14. trisha alexander

    hello I have lymph edema in my right arm, chest and back area from having breast cancer 2 times. The first time was reconstructive surgery and the second time a double mastectomy 2013. So my plan was to get a tank top tattoo. Now I am not so sure I can get my dream tattoo… any ideas or suggestions?

  15. I had a tat put on my left hand. I have lymphedema in my left arm. My arm swelled for a week or so but it quieted down. I’m now going to get sleeve tat down my left arm to cover up the scars. I know it’s going to swell but I’m prepared for it. I’m sure it’ll be fine. Comments anyone.

  16. When I was 18 my left foot started to swell for no reason. It decreased to a small edema from my toes to the lower half of the foot. It took me 3 Years to find out that it was a lymphedema because not a single doctor in my area could tell me what it was. I started an apprenticeship as tattoo artist a year ago and have (almost) no tattoos by now. My dream was to have a body suit some day but now I’m afraid that this stays a dream. I also have a few surgeries to come (I’m ftm transgender) that are more important than tattoos but I feel like everything I lived for breaks apart now…

  17. I’ve had lymphedema in my right leg for 10 years.
    Last year I got part of my right foot tattoo done and finished it this Easter. I’ve had no problems. I plan on getting my whole right leg done to combat my self-consciousness about my 2 different sized legs…
    I’m consulting my vascular surgeon about it as I go. I will find out in June what he says about the whole leg and “problem” areas…

    • Consulting with your doctor is a great way to go! Everyone is different and can react to the tattoo process differently, so it’s really good to have a professional to check in with, just in case there are any complications.

      I LOVE the idea of getting your leg done to combat the self-consciousness issues. I’d love to see a photo of the finished piece if you get it done! :)

  18. I have a special case of lymphedema, it’s only in my upper thighs in what I usually call my saks. I was in a bad car accident serveral years ago where my circulation was cut off by the seat belt causing the lymph fluid to pool in my upper thighs. I have never had any problem with lower leg swelling, so I didn’t even think about it when I got my new tattoo. It was around a week ago and it has not been pretty. I’ve tried to keep it as clean as possible, but I’ve noticed redness and swelling around the tattoo as well as oozing lymph fluid. The ink is also bleeding so the lines aren’t crisp. I stupidly did not research it before going in. I suggest against it, although I don’t regret it. My tattoo means something special to me. Now I understand why my occupational therapist told me not to get any more tattoos on my legs.

  19. I have Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. Do tattoos affect this type of cancer?

    • Hi, Lindsey,

      I’m not sure how tattoos affect different types of cancer, but if your immune system is compromised in any way, be careful! Your body won’t be able to fight bacteria or infections as easily, so it’s even more important that the parlor you go to adheres to industry regulations in regards to safety and the use of sterile equipment.

      Again, I am not super knowledgeable about tattoos and cancer as my personal experience lies only with lymphedema, so ask your doctor or another medical professional just to be sure! Depending on your situation, they may advise against getting one at all, or they may say it’s okay as long as the parlor is clean. I would definitely double-check with someone who can give you a more informed answer, just to be on the safer side.

      Be well!
      Alexa

  20. Pingback: What to Expect When You’re Expecting: Pregnancy and Lymphedema – The Lymphie Life

  21. I have lower extremity lymphedema due to lotsa radiation treatments. i got a tat on my left breast in 2013 and no probz so far that I’m aware of. ;) thanx for the info!!

  22. Hi, Vicki! Thanks for reaching out.

    If your doctors suspect you may have lymphedema in your right leg, then it is advisable to proceed with caution, especially if you’re planning on tattooing that leg. The lymphatic system is delicate, and things like tattooing an affected limb can cause trauma to an already damaged lymphatic system and potentially cause swelling to worsen.

    Your very best bet is to talk about it with your doctor before making any decisions, as they know your case of lymphedema and your overall health better than I do! :) Everybody (and every *body*) is different, so it’s good to check in with your medical professional and see what your options may be.

    Best of luck!
    Alexa

  23. Jeremy Hazel

    Hello….I am glad I came across your blog…I am actually a tattoo artist who had a client that told me in the middle of the work she had lymphedema……I am now keeping close tabs on the client and 3 days in everything seems to be going well…..do any of your readers have modifications to the general aftercare they have used to successfully heal their art. I am asking because I prefer to not work on those limbs…sometimes people are not honest and if it happens again I want to be able to give them the best care possible

    • Hi, Jeremy,
      It’s great to see a tattoo artist interested in learning more about lymphedema! It’s also great to know you’re keeping an eye on your client. As the article says, it’s generally recommended to avoid tattooing on the affected limb as it could potentially cause more trauma to the lymphatic system. Like you said, though, sometimes people aren’t aware or don’t disclose that information before beginning the tattoo. I’m not sure what aftercare accommodations are recommended for people with lymphedema (I have one tattoo behind my ear, whereas my lymphedema is in my leg — if anyone reading has experience with this, please chime in!!) but I imagine careful observation is key, as would be their continued treatment of their affected limb via wearing their compression garment, performing manual lymphatic drainage massages, and elevating the limb. Checking in with their lymphedema therapist or doctor would be a good idea, too, just to make sure everything’s okay.

      I think the best course of action for you as an artist would be to check with a patient during the consultation to make sure they don’t have any preexisting conditions that could be exacerbated by a tattoo, especially if it looks like they might have swelling in their leg or arm. It’s great you are seeking education on the topic, and speaks to your integrity as a responsible artist!

      Thanks for reaching out,
      Alexa

  24. Cheryl Carman

    I had to have all my lymph nodes removed 2 years ago on my right arm because of melanoma. Unfortunately where the melanoma presented was in the middle of a portrait tattoo I have of my daughter. Because of the wide incision they have to do for melanoma the portrait is very disfigured. I do not have lymphedema and I do not want to get it but I really want this tattoo fixed. My doctor said he would prescribe me some antibiotics if I decided to have it repaired. Any body out there with experience similar to this? Please help. I am growing tired of explaining why my daughter looks this way.

  25. Has anyone got lymphedema in other areas after getting a tatto. For example I have lymphedema in both my legs but I want a tattoo on my side. I am concerned that if I get a tattoo on my side I will get lymphedema on my side too? Anyone had that happen to them???

    • I have lymphedema in my left arm.
      After that I got a tattoo on my left upper back. I had a visit with a physical therapist that specialized in lymphedema and she said that I stressed the left quadrant by gettingM my tattoo there. Oh well. I’m fine now. You
      It’s been awhile since I’ve taken anatomy but I think you could get a tattoo on your right side and it shouldn’t tie in to the leg lymph system.

      https://goo.gl/images/ZS7mcG

      Of course I’m not an expert so you might consult with one and then decide for yourself.

      Let us know how it turns out!

      Kim

    • Hi, Buffy,
      I have lymphedema in my right leg, and a few years ago I got a tattoo behind my right ear. It was OK – didn’t affect my swelling – but there isn’t a high concentration of lymph nodes on the head. Your side might be a little riskier; I don’t think it would cause lymphedema to develop there, but it could possibly aggravate the swelling you already have in your legs. The lymphatic system is so fragile, and the vessels are close to the surface of the skin – I would definitely speak with your lymphedema therapist to see how it could affect your lymphedema, just to be safe! It’s possible for lymphies to get a tattoo with no problem, but when in doubt it definitely doesn’t hurt to ask a healthcare professional :)

      Best of luck,
      Alexa

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