Tattoos are works of art, meaningful both spiritually and personally. Historically, they have also been many other things, including a rite of adulthood, a record of personal accomplishments, and an autobiography. But could they be something else entirely: a therapeutic way to heal?

The short answer is wholeheartedly yes. But the long answer begs the question, what kind of healing do we mean? While tattoos can be therapeutic, it’s important to distinguish what they can do from what they could do, and what they probably can’t do. Tattoos can be beautiful artworks representing difficult times in one’s life, or the blossoming of something beautiful as a result of an eternal struggle. But in many cases, tattoos were not just a cosmetic tool, but potentially a form of healing.

Therapeutic tattoos in history

There are few examples of tattoos being used in human history as a form of therapy or healing. The Iceman Ötzi (named so for the region of the alps where he was discovered), whom we’ve written plenty about on this blog, was famously discovered with 57 tattoos all over his body. None of these were particularly decorative, however, and consisted largely of simple lines or crosses.

Rather than try to evoke any specific imagery, it is highly likely that these tattoos were a form of therapy applied to help combat pain in ancient pre-historic times. The skin over a painful or chronically inflamed spot in the body was presumably cut or pierced, and soot, ash, or charcoal with water was smeared onto the wound.

While painful in and of itself, the act of tattooing also releases powerful endorphins, which is the same reason why some people seek physical relief by cutting themselves. It could be that, by piercing the skin and inking it, ancient pre-historic humans had found some form of relief for sprains, joint aches, strained muscles, and other normal wear-and-tear ailments. It’s important to note that the Iceman suffered from a number of ailments including digestive problems and rheumatic arthritis. The points and lines found on his body often coincide with the meridian taught and disseminated by traditional Chinese acupuncture.

This practice is not limited to Ötzi, as joint tattooing is also a practice among the Kayan of Borneo, and the Aroma people of Papua New Guinea. According to living members of these tribes, swollen or painful areas would be tattooed by a woman, and subsequently, mobility would return to the affected areas. It was common to tattoo the same spot several times, and anthropologist Lars Krutak believes that this was the case in several of Ötzi’s tattoos as well, given that his tattoos remained so clear, despite mummification.

While there is less evidence to support some of the other potential therapeutic uses of tattoos, one other example comes from ancient Egypt, where tattoos were exclusively a female art form. Particularly common among excavated female bodies was a series of tattoos covering a woman’s womb, stomach, and sometimes thighs.

Although first disregarded as the bodies of prostitutes or concubines by the researchers who discovered them, more evidence has come to light (and old evidence has been reexamined), confirming that at least one of the tattooed women was a high-ranking priestess, and that, given that many of the bodies were found in locations reserved for the elite and members of royalty, it’s unlikely that these women were of low social standing.

Some theories suggest that these tattoos marked women as worshippers of certain Egyptian gods, but another explanation is that the tattoos were meant to bring fertility, or even help with menstrual pain, as the same markings were found on various ancient Egyptian fertility dolls. Whether therapeutic or not, the idea of marking certain parts of the body that are in pain with ink is extremely old, and traces back to our pre-historic and ancient ancestors. But do these tattoos really help? Or are they simply tradition?

Are there any real health benefits to a tattoo?

There’s no data indicating that a tattoo has any meaningful health benefits. A cursory glance over existing research suggests that there may be a benefit to tattooing certain medication into hypertrophic and keloid scars (scars with mild to extreme skin growth), and corneal tattooing has been used for years as a legitimate way to combat and cure glaucoma, especially after an iridotomy fails.

The Smithsonian makes note of one experiment wherein a single patient underwent a tattoo to help cure chronic pain and tinnitus, with the results being a long-term reduction in symptoms (both conditions eventually returned but weakened).

The empirical method being as it is, it’s impossible to claim that getting a tattoo has a strong health benefit. It is more likely to be a health risk than a health benefit, specifically due to ink allergies, potential for infection, the fact that tattoos can cover up skin diseases and symptoms of melanoma, and burns caused by ferromagnetic ink under an MRI.

Tattoos and the immune system

Does that mean that all of these therapeutic uses for tattoos were useless? No, not at all. It just means we haven’t thoroughly studied the therapeutic potential of a tattoo. Until recently, tattoos were not at all a part of the mainstream, and the idea of suggesting that a patient with chronic back pain get a tattoo for it would be absolutely ridiculous. That idea is becoming less ridiculous over time, however, and there’s hope that we may start looking into it.

One particularly interesting study suggests a link between tattoos and a stronger immune system, caused by the activation of the body’s immune system in response to the creation of an open wound, and the introduction of foreign ink. If you don’t know how tattoos work to begin with, the short version of it is that the pigment particles that are injected into the second layer of your skin are too big to be destroyed by your white blood cells, which is why they stay there. But the act of tattooing itself still alerts your immune system and doing this several times in a row seems to improve your immune system further (i.e., a cumulative effect). However, one study isn’t very conclusive, and more research is needed.

Even if research ends up confirming that tattoos have no lasting effect on our nerves, immune system, or pain sensitivity, that does not make them useless. Just as we know that acupuncture does not hold up when rigorously tested, we also know that it still works for a lot of people anyway. And that has little to do with your body, and more to do with your mind. While the short-term rush of getting a tattoo is certainly explained by the endorphins produced when the body experiences pain, the long-term benefits of techniques such as tattooing an inflamed joint can potentially be chalked up to the same unexplained mechanism behind acupuncture.

Tattoos and mental health

Just as interesting as the physiological mechanism through which tattoos might produce a therapeutic effect is the potential for tattoos as a therapeutic tool for mental health problems. While there’s no research, countless anecdotes go on to credit a tattoo with helping a person better themselves, whether to serve as a reminder of their growth and their journey, or as a way for them to express their solidarity with others who suffer from similar conditions, whether they include the anguish and depression suffered under chronic pain, or conditions like major depressive disorder and substance use disorder.

The potential for tattoos to be therapeutic is immense, if the stories are anything to go by. People often come to artists with the intention of turning their pain into art and giving their suffering more meaning. Whether it’s to find closure when grieving a loved one’s passing, or to seek strength and a new identity rather than succumbing to a condition, tattoos have grown massively in popularity in part because they allow people to further redefine and identify themselves.

Tattoos for alopecia

One particular condition that sees a lot of therapeutic tattooing is alopecia, which is a condition that affects men, women, and children. Alopecia is commonly associated with aging men but can occur in anyone. It is an autoimmune disease and occurs when the body attacks its own hair follicles, and some potential causes include genetics and stress.

While there are no other serious symptoms usually associated with alopecia, most of the damage caused by the condition is a result of the stigma associated with it. Balding men have long been mocked, but it’s much worse for balding women, and the psychological impact of suffering from alopecia can be overwhelming. Scalp micropigmentation, or a scalp tattoo, can help sufferers of alopecia regain their self-confidence, or find a different way to own their condition.

Tattoos over scars

Following in the trend of overcoming struggle and redefining pain through a tattoo, another condition where tattoos can shine is scarring – especially post-surgery scarring, such as after a mastectomy, keloid scar, or other conditions. Thousands of people struggle with their physical appearance after an amputation, or after a surgical intervention that left them scarred. Tattoos provide a way to turn that scar into something beautiful, fierce, or empowering.

Sadly, tattooing over a scar may not always be safe. It’s important to approach this idea with your doctor and tattoo artist, and to identify inks that would be best for your skin. Nevertheless, this practice can be a great way to overcome a previous hurt.

Do tattoos have powers?

One of the more common reasons ancient cultures likely tattooed themselves was for protection. Protection from the elements, from the wrath of a higher power, from others. Protection from disease. Blessings were likely also key – blessings of fertility, prowess in combat, wisdom. We have used symbols to try and invoke a higher power for as long as, well, ever – and tattoos are some of the oldest ways in which we have inscribed said symbols. And what better way to try and incant something than through a permanent, painful ritual of self-modification?

Sadly, we can be fairly certain that the universe we collectively exist in most likely does not abide by any manmade magic. We can’t make things float with our minds, we can’t curse others in complex rituals, and we can’t invoke the gods through our tats. While there’s plenty we don’t know, we can safely rule out the idea that a little bit of ink under your skin is more or less likely to bend or twist the wheels of fate in your favor. That being said, there are so many factors accounting for every second of our lives, that it all might as well just be magic.

Coincidences often occur that should be mathematical impossibilities, only because life and living is so endlessly complex. Perhaps the confidence and self-esteem that your new tattoo gives you is what makes the difference on that one fateful day where you happen to meet your lifelong partner. Perhaps your tattoo will be a contributing factor to a career in photography and modelling that you otherwise might not have gotten. Perhaps it will lead to new opportunities you couldn’t have foreseen.

I don’t know. You don’t know. And maybe that’s magic. Either way, whatever you do decide to do, just make sure that you’re comfortable knowing that whatever it is you choose to tattoo on your skin will be there forever, and that’s the way you’ve always wanted it. A good tattoo isn’t something you just add onto yourself – it’s like revealing the invisible and bringing out something that was basically always hiding underneath your skin.