What is Known About Epidurals and Tattoos?

By Rachel Walden — September 24, 2007

Last week, the Wall Street Journal published a piece, “Why Some Expectant Moms Are Worried About Tattoos,” which raised the question of whether it is safe for women in labor to receive epidural injections during labor through lower back tattoos.

Possible complications mentioned include “inflammation or nerve damage may arise if the needle pulled a bit of dyed skin along with it, and then deposited it into the nerve-rich region outside the spinal column.” The piece also notes that while tattoo inks fall under the regulatory purview of the Food and Drug Administration, the agency has done very little to study or report on their safety.

Experts quoted for the story suggest that there is very little real risk as long as the tattoo has healed. There is little documentation on the topic, despite the high rate of epidural use for U.S. births and quarter of women of reproductive age with tattoos (about 20 percent of whom have lower back tattoos), as noted by the Wall Street Journal. No large studies have been done to note epidural complications in women with or without the ink, and only a couple of case reports even attempt to address the topic.

Ultimately, there is not enough information to suggest that women should not get lower back tattoos if they plan to eventually give birth with administration of an epidural, nor is there enough to suggest that women who have such tattoos cannot receive epidural injections. There is likely very little incentive to study the issue, given that there are few reports of complications and no obvious money-making drug or procedure to be developed, short of the already available tattoo removal.

The Chicago Sun-Times and Snopes (the urban legends website) hint at why this story has gained so much traction over the years – it makes way for the supposedly sexually available woman with a “tramp stamp” (a common term for such tattoos) to be punished with the pain of childbirth. Meanwhile, it distracts from ongoing conversations about the state of birth today, and how women can best receive safe, effective, and satisfying maternity care.

One response to “What is Known About Epidurals and Tattoos?”

  1. Interesting- Two of my friends who have both tattoos and babies (in unrelated incidents) now connect the two as symbols of their own strength; the tattoos are representative of an ability to “keep moving” while documenting phases in their lives, and surviving natural childbirth, by choice in both cases, is representative of its own more obvious strengths.

    It’s too bad these kinds of connections aren’t more mainstream–the last thing a particularly young American woman needs is yet another reason to be paranoid about birthing her first child because she “made a bad choice in college” in regard to the artwork on her body.

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