Finding Comfort Zone a Pain in Neck for Tattoo Artists

Finding Comfort Zone a Pain in Neck for Tattoo Artists

Bending, clenching, hunching over; their faces dropping to within inches of their clients body, tattoo machine in hand -- often for three to eight hours at a time. All of that pain and suffering is drawing a troubling picture of health, according to researchers who conducted the first study on the physical stresses that tattoo artists experience at work.

Researchers at The Ohio State University found that tattoo artists are likely to exceed maximum muscle exertion levels recommended to avoid injury, especially in the upper back and neck. The findings were based on 10 Ohio tattoo artists who agreed to work while wearing electrodes that measured their muscle activity.

Carolyn Sommerich, director of the Engineering Laboratory for Human Factors/Ergonomic Safety at Ohio State, said she spent the summer "hanging out in tattoo parlors with our EMG equipment, cameras and tripod" to find discomforts that plagued tattoo artists.

Of the findings, presented in the journal Applied Ergonomics, most notable was the strain placed on trapezius muscles -- upper back muscles that connect the shoulder blades to either side of the neck. At this common site for neck/shoulder pain, some exertions exceeded limits by as much as 25 percent, putting the tattoo artists at high risk for injury.

Sommerich said tattoo artists experience similar ailments that dentists and dental hygienists suffer on the job. All perform detailed work with their hands while leaning over clients, but, unlike dental professionals, tattoo artists in the United States are without a national organization that sets ergonomic policy for avoiding injury.

Although there are a number of adjustable arm and leg rests on the market, there is no so-called "tattoo chair," that takes into account the stresses specific to the tattoo artist. Until there is, Sommerich suggests tattoo artists experiment with different chairs for themselves that support their backs and arms, change positions, break more frequently, and mount a magnifying glass to see their work and reduce leaning.

Although general liability insurance is available, many tattoo artists are independent contractors who rent studio space from shop owners and are not covered by worker's compensation if they get hurt on the job, said Dana Keester, a former master's student at The Ohio State University who assisted in the study.

The best take away from this new information is that academia and health research is finally taking a look at the tattoo and body-art industries. This is probably due to the increase in the profitability of the industry over the past decade. Since tattoo parlors are no longer the taboo establishments they were once considered, and more and more artists are getting into the profession, it was only a matter of time before other groups took notice. We can only hope that this trend continues and we will see more research and better products on the horizon that will ease discomfort and prevent body pains in artists.

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