Medical tattoo

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Medical tattoo: blood type.

A medical tattoo is a tattoo used for indicating a medically relevant condition or body location.[1] Medical tattoos can be used for a number of reasons:

  • As a warning that a patient suffers from a chronic disease or allergy that can exacerbate suddenly and that will require immediate specific treatment; one example is in the case of diabetes mellitus,[1] in which unconsciousness may be a sign of low or high blood glucose level.[2]
  • As an aid in radiotherapy.[3] In order to minimize damage to surrounding tissues, the radiotherapist seeks to keep the irradiated field as small as possible. Marking a number of points on the body with tattoos can aid radiotherapists in adjusting the beam accurately and consistently from one irradiation to the next.
  • During breast reconstruction after mastectomy (removal of the breast for treatment of cancer), or breast reduction surgery. Tattooing is sometimes used to replace the areola which has been removed during mastectomy, or to fill in areas of pigment loss which may occur during breast reduction performed with a free nipple graft technique.[4]
  • Similar to dog tags, members of the U.S. military may have their vital information tattooed on themselves, usually on the rib cage below the armpit; they are referred to as "meat tags".[5][6][7]


A definitive beginning for medical tattooing is difficult to pinpoint, however there are records and evidence dating back to 3,300 BCE. A naturally preserved human body found in a snowfield in the Tyrolean Alps has tattoo markings with much speculation surrounding their intentions. The markings are located over the lumbar spine, the right knee, and both ankles. Radiographic studies performed on the corpse revealed that the man had osteoarthritis in these joints and scientists suggest “that the tattoos might indicate a form of stimulatory treatment similar to acupuncture.”[8] Expert opinions from three acupuncture societies indicate that nine of the tattoos could be identified as being located directly on or within 6 mm of traditional acupuncture points.[9]

Another well-preserved mummy found in the necropolis of Chiribaya Alta in southern Peru dates back to 400 BCE and also has unexplainable tattoos located in areas of therapeutic importance. The Scythian horseman has ornamental and non-ornamental tattoos; “the difference in the tattoos is so obvious that there is speculation about a possible therapeutic importance of the ones in the perivertebral and retromalleolar region."[10] The marks are circular, of simple shape and run along the spinal column.

A crude practice of medical tattooing was performed by Galen in 150 CE. He tried to cover leukomatous opacities of the cornea by cauterizing the surface with a heated stilet and applying powdered nutgalls and iron or pulverized pomegranate bark mixed with copper salt.[11] With the rise of Christianity, tattooing declined and eventually became banned by a papal edict in 787 CE.[12]

It was not until the mid-1800s that the first papers to unequivocally document the medical application of tattooing appeared. A German physician named Pauli used tattooing with mercury sulfide and white lead for the restoration of the natural color to the skin in cases on congenital vascular nevi (6). Other instances include the cosmetic tattooing with mercury sulfide after plastic lip procedures recommended by Shule in 1850 or the modern method of corneal tattooing put into practice by Louis Von Wecker in the 1870s.[13][14]

In recent decades, medical tattoos have come to be understood as markings that indicate the medical conditions or information of the person who bears them. During the Cold War, threats of nuclear warfare led several U.S. states to consider blood type tattooing. Programs were spurred in Chicago, Utah and Indiana based on the premise that if an atomic bomb were to strike, the resulting damage would require extremely large amounts of blood within a short amount of time.[15][16][17] Very few efforts came to fruition.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Kluger N, Aldasouqi S (May 2012). "A new purpose for tattoos: Medical alert tattoos". Presse Med. 42 (2): 134–7. PMID 22647627. doi:10.1016/j.lpm.2012.04.009. 
  2. ^ Richard S. Irwin; James M. Rippe (2008). Irwin and Rippe's intensive care medicine. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. pp. 1256–. ISBN 978-0-7817-9153-3. Retrieved 4 December 2012. 
  3. ^ Greer PB, Mortensen TM (1997). "Anterior-posterior treatment localization in pelvic radiotherapy: tattoos or fixed couch-to-isocentre distance". Med Dosim. 22 (1): 43–6. PMID 9136107. 
  4. ^ Potter S, Barker J, Willoughby L, Perrott E, Cawthorn SJ, Sahu AK (June 2007). "Patient satisfaction and time-saving implications of a nurse-led nipple and areola reconstitution service following breast reconstruction". Breast. 16 (3): 293–6. PMID 17241786. doi:10.1016/j.breast.2006.12.004. 
  5. ^ Kristin Wilson Keppler (18 August 2010). "The man who makes sure dead marines get home". BBC News. Retrieved 22 March 2012. 
  6. ^ Katherine Kington (27 February 2012). "Medical tattoos on the rise". WTVM. Retrieved 22 March 2012. Donny says much like an Army dog tag, the soldiers call them meat tags. 
  7. ^ Reilly, Rick (17 February 2003). "Where Have All the Young Men Gone?". Time. Time Inc. 161 (2-10). Retrieved 22 March 2012. A lot of 'em are young and scared to be going over," says Rachael Mays of the Sleeping Dragon tattoo parlor. "They come in for their meat tags. You know, dog tags for the skin. Their name, rank, serial number, religion, blood type and gas-mask size. They want 'em in case they're blown in half. Then at least some part of them can come back to their folks. 
  8. ^ Spindler, K (1994). The man in the ice. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson. 
  9. ^ Bahr, F (1998). "Expert opinions on the correspondence of tattoo locations and acupuncture points in the Tyrolean Iceman". 
  10. ^ Rolle, R (1992). "Die skythenzeitlichen Mumienfunde von Pazyryk—Frostkonservierte Gräber aus dem Altaigebirge". Der Mann im Eis. 1: 334–58. 
  11. ^ Zieglar, SL (1922). Multicolor tattooing of the cornea. Trans Am Ophthalmol Soc. pp. 71–8. 
  12. ^ Levy, J (1979). A short history of tattooing. pp. 851–6. 
  13. ^ Turell, R (1942). Technic of tattooing with mercury sulfide. Ann Surg. pp. 126–30. 
  14. ^ Von Wecker, L (1872). Das Tätowiren der Hornhaut. Arch Augenheilkunde. pp. 84–7. 
  15. ^ "Booklet tells what to do if city is bombed" (7). Chicago Daily Tribune. Dec 7, 1950. 
  16. ^ "Mass tattoo of 200,000 on in Lake County" (1). Chicago Daily Tribune. August 26, 1951. 
  17. ^ Kite, L (August 2, 2006). "Sign of the times". The Herald Journal. 

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