The Official Blog for Tattoo Artist Magazine

Durb Morrison: Tattoo Artists, Loosen Your Belts While You Are Tattooing!

By Durb Morrison
I have been tattooing for 22 years of my life currently and have tattooed nearly everyday over the last two decades. Throughout my career, I’ve had many of the common physical discomforts that us tattoo artists get like back aching all the time, forearm pain, numbness in my hand, fingers and forearm, even right ear hearing damage from machines running close to my ear daily. I’ve also worked in a lot of different places… some with the luxury of nice chairs, and some (like conventions) where I was completely folded in half, and leaning forward to get to the client’s tattoo. I twist to the right everyday to dip ink, and grab soap and ointment all while wearing a thick leather belt. The thick belts that I wore and my repetitive twisting while tattooing over the last two decades are what lead to the permanent nerve damage I now have in my left leg… 

I’ve actually kept up pretty well with my body over the years; staying active, eating well, exercising and stretching to alleviate many symptoms. I have not gained the weight that tattoo artists seem to gain, but being stationary in our field seems to be our own worst enemy in other ways. I’ve been fortunate and have been able to avoid serious health issues with many of these known physical conditions, but the ones you never know about can creep up on you very fast without warning and leave you with an irreversible condition that will affect the way you live and tattoo for the rest of your life. When you feel you have done everything you can to improve yourself physically for your job, it’s surprising to find out there are still issues you have not yet encountered…

Recently I had an odd numbing sensation in my left outer thigh, accompanied by an intense burning and stinging sensation that is constant and very distracting. I dismissed it as simply a pinched nerve stemming from my back for weeks. I relied on my chiropractor, inversion tables and x-rays to help diagnose this issue. Boy, was I wrong! When the intense burning sensation in my left outer thigh never alleviated and seemed to get worse, I decided to go to my doctor to get further evaluation. I was immediately sent to the neurology center at the hospital for further testing.

After an hour of being shocked and punctured about 50 times with needles that were attached to a computer for neurological readings. The immediate computer readouts determined that it was what I and other tattoo artists surprisingly have never heard of before, Meralgia Paresthetica. I sat down with doctors and they informed me of what could be causing the lateral femoral cutaneous nerve damage to my left outer thigh. We spoke about a few things including diabetes, which I got tested for and was fine, or a compression somehow of my femoral nerve that is located at the front of the hip bones, right where everyone’s belts sit. I never thought that my belt would actually cause a serious problem. Nowadays I am more aware about wearing looser waistbands, soft flexible cloth belts and better my posture as to not put unwanted pressure on the hips. It continues to remain uncomfortable and painful, especially after a long day and week of tattooing.

Meralgia Paresthetica is a condition characterized by tingling, numbness and burning pain in the outer part of your thigh. The cause of Meralgia Paresthetica is compression of the nerve that supplies sensation to the skin surface of your upper leg. This chronic neurological disorder involves a single peripheral nerve, namely, the lateral femoral cutaneous nerve. The lateral femoral cutaneous nerve of the thigh most often becomes injured by entrapment or compression where it passes between the upper front hipbone and the inguinal ligament near the upper point of the hipbone. The nerve may become painful over a period of time as tattoo artists gain weight making belts or the waistband of pants exert more pressure. The pain may be acute and radiate into the rib cage, into the groin, buttocks and thigh.

SYMPTOMS & SIGNS of Meralgia Paresthetica:

  • Pain on the outer side of the thigh, extending to knee
  • A burning sensation, tingling, stinging or numbness in the same area
  • Multiple bee-sting like pains in the affected area
  • Occasionally, aching in the groin area or pain in the buttocks
  • Usually more sensitive to light touch than to firm pressure
  • Hyper sensitivity to heat on outer thigh

Uncommon conditions like this are what really bring awareness to possible hazards in our job field. Although I’m not really excited to have this happen to me, if I can bring attention and awareness to the condition of Meralgia Paresthetica to help the next generation of tattoo artists to avoid it, my mission is accomplished!

Take care of your body and be aware of the small things that can become larger if unchecked or unrecognized. Make sure you wear flexible, soft belts and be sure to loosen them, especially when you sit down to tattoo. Position your clients where you don’t have to lean way over to get to the tattoo, which causes unnecessary pressure on your lateral femoral cutaneous nerve at the front of the hips. On a side note, Sciatica is another chronic neurological disorder that affects many tattoo artists, so be sure to take your wallet out of your pants prior to sitting and tattooing for hours on end.

Some things I’ve noticed that help at least take away some of the tightness and burning in my thigh are low weight leg exercises, lower back stretches and exercises, stretching the abdominal area. I’ve also lost 10 pounds, which has lessened belt pressure. Resting my leg seems to help a bit… just taking some time to allow the nerve to not be compressed at all has helped too. Actual rest, something that us tattoo artists don’t get a lot of, could be one of the best things for your nerves.

Hopefully this gives us all a new insight to a previously unknown condition that could potentially affect our peers and fellow artists. Be sure to listen to your body. If you feel discomfort, don’t ignore it. Early detection can extend your comfort and career over the many years to come.

Take care and be well!

Durb can be found at: http://www.durbmorrison.com/.

6 responses

  1. Thanks for the info Durb! I taking my leather belt off right now.

    July 30, 2012 at 10:09 PM

  2. Thanks for this post!!!!! I was planing on going to the Doc for thesis symptoms. Now I some info that helps out!

    August 1, 2012 at 2:02 PM

  3. Durb i find this very interesting .My back hurt s like every tattooist , Stretching every morning and during the day helps. I like to stretch before every tattoo .I noticed i do the same stretches for my back and hips and also my hands as you have displayed in this article . I believe i am getting arthritis and have had surgery on my hands and fingers from bicycle accidents when i was a kid and have terrible hand cramps .
    Since on my right hand my pointer and middle finger have pins in them ,as a right handed tattooist i cant put firm grip on my tube and it effects my line work sometimes .Any thought s on how to fix this . I have tried bigger grips to compensate for the lack of finger strength It seems to work fine for now .I know the older i get the harder it s gonna be on my hands and back

    August 4, 2012 at 1:09 PM

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