Epidurals and Lower Back Tattoos

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Robin Elise Weiss posted an article on About.com: Pregnancy & Childbirth about some anesthesiologists’ fears of administering epidural anesthesia to women with lumbar tattoos.

Some anesthesiologists have speculated that placing an epidural during labor through this tattoo may be dangerous. The theory is that if you place the epidural needle through the ink, the dye in the skin may enter the epidural space and cause infection or damage. Other doctors offer the advice that if the tattoo is healed and the ink is dry there is no cause for concern.

The truth is we really don’t know, as very few women have been studied. One recent study involved three women. You may still opt for epidural anesthesia if you are pregnant, you can even request that they avoid placing the needle through your tattoo. If you are at the planning stages for a tattoo, consider a different location if you feel this decision is one you’d prefer to avoid.

Mayo Clinic obstetrician Roger W. Harms wrote in his July 2008 Q&A article that “the exception would be if the tattoo covers a large area and is still “fresh” — meaning the involved skin is still healing” and added that “very few studies have looked at the risks of epidurals in women with lower back tattoos.”

Snopes.com lists the claim that women with lower back tattoos should not receive epidural anesthesia as “undetermined” in a February 6, 2006, post entitled Suffer to be Beautiful. Post author Barbara Mikkelson offered her theory on why medical professionals are playing God when it comes to women with lumbar tats.

Whatever the medical world ultimately determines as the truth about potential risk regarding the combination of sacral tattoos and epidurals, I can’t help but be struck by the parallels between the modern rumor about inked vixens having to give birth unbuffered by pain medications and the penalty visited upon Eve for leading Adam astray. Eve, the original bad woman, the vamp, was punished for her part in the “Have an apple, sweetheart” fiasco by being cursed by God on high with the pain of childbirth, with the whammy laid upon her passed down to all her descendents (that is, all womanhood). Lumbar region tattoos on women are seen as communicating hinted-at promises of sexual favors. The consequence visited upon both classes of temptress is the same: they shall each know the physical pain of birthing children.

On Our Bodies, Our Blog, Rachel noted that the widespread coverage of the topic of lumbar tattoos and epidurals following an article in the Wall Street Times in September 2007 “distract[ed] from ongoing conversations about the state of birth today, and how women can best receive safe, effective, and satisfying maternity care” and noted that the odds of ever getting any decent research on lumbar tattoos and epidurals is slim.

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.


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