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Are there medical reasons to get a tattoo?



The medical tattoo is a permanent alternative to the medical bracelet.“The medical tattoo is a permanent alternative to the medical bracelet.© Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis

People generally get tattoos for decorative or ritualistic reasons. In fact, according to a 2010 study, 23 percent of Americans reported having at least one tattoo [source: Pew Research Center]. Some get tattoos to mark watershed events in their lives, some get ink simply to decorate their bodies and some get tattoos to honor people close to them. Are there other reasons someone might choose to get permanent ink? Yes, and the reason is practical.

Typically, people with medical conditions use medical bracelets to alert emergency personnel if they are unconscious or unable to communicate. These bracelets may list issues such as diabetes, Alzheimer’s or severe allergies. However, around 2012, medical tattoos became popular among people who had trouble losing their bracelets and wanted something more permanent.

Ben Roberts, a diabetic, told USA Today he lost more than $1,000 worth of bracelets since age 6 before finally deciding to get a medical tattoo [source: Chason]. Ed Friedlander, a pathologist, got "No CPR" tattooed on his chest to express his wish that he receive no life-saving measures should his heart stop [source: CBS News].

However, paramedics and many medical professionals urge caution before making the switch.

Because the American Medical Association has no guidelines regarding medical tattoos, paramedics or hospitals have no legal obligation to follow their instructions. If the tattoos aren’t on the wrist or are enhanced with a design, medical professionals may not even be able to locate them, rendering them useless. Also, the permanency of tattoos becomes problematic when medical information changes. On the other hand, in an emergency situation, paramedics look for any information that can help them aid a patient, and a tattoo certainly can assist them.

There is a medically-accepted tattoo, though: a radiation tattoo. When a patient receives radiation therapy, the radiologist needs to pinpoint the exact area for treatment. A tattoo the size of a freckle is applied to the skin for precise targeting.

A popular health-related but cosmetic tattoo is sometimes chosen after a mastectomy. New Jersey-based tattoo artist Kristen Bonafide elaborates, "I’ve done areola ‘reconstruction’ after a client experienced a double mastectomy." Areola tattoos add pigmentation to the chest to simulate areolas.

And finally, as a nod to the animal kingdom, Bonafide mentions that female dogs sometimes receive a small line tattoo to indicate they were spayed.

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  • Bonafide, Kristin. Personal Interview. Jan. 15, 2015.
  • The Cancer Center at Lake Manassas. "Radiation Tattoos." 2011. (Jan. 25, 2015) http://www.breastcenterlm.org/Treatment/Radiationtherapy/RadiationTattoos.aspx
  • CBS News. "Medical tattoos with vital information replacing bracelets for some." Feb. 27, 2012. (Jan. 25, 2015) http://www.cbsnews.com/news/medical-tattoos-with-vital-information-replacing-bracelets-for-some/
  • Chason, Rachel. "Unregulated rise of medical alert tattoos stirs debate." USA Today. July 24, 2014. (Jan. 25, 2015) http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/07/24/medical-alert-tattoos-debate/12788747/
  • Kiernan, Caitlin. "A Tattoo That Completes a New Breast." New York Times. June 2, 2014. (Jan. 25, 2015) http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/06/02/a-tattoo-that-completes-a-new-breast/?_r=0
  • Leung, Wency. "Goodbye MedicAlert bracelet – hello tattoo?" The Globe and Mail. June 18, 2012. (Jan. 25, 2015) http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/health-and-fitness/medical-information-tattoos-raise-health-care-questions/article4178748/
  • Pew Research Center. "Millennials: A Portrait of Generation Next." Feb. 2010. (Jan. 24, 2015) http://pewsocialtrends.org/files/2010/10/millennials-confident-connected-open-to-change.pdf

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