No one likes to get stuck by a needle. Whether it’s for a blood test, vaccination, or blood donation, needle sticks are something most people prefer to avoid.
Yet, judging only by immunization and routine testing schedules, the average healthy person can expect at least 165 needle sticks in their lifetime. To be hospitalized? It could add dozens or even hundreds. And the number of needle sticks suffered by people with diabetes, HIV and certain other illnesses hovers in the “don’t ask” range.
For many, this can be more of an annoyance than a real problem. But if you have a strong fear of needles or an aversion to the sight of blood, get vaccinated or have any other needle sticks is A big deal. If this sounds like you, you may have trypanophobia.
What is trypanophobia?
Fittingly, the name combines the Greek term trypano – meaning perforation or piercing – with phobia, which means fear. This remarkably common condition is marked by irrational, extreme fear, or aversion to blood or needles. It is estimated that fear of needles affects up to 25% of adults and can cause 16% of people in the United States to not get the vaccine. Many people who have a strong fear of needle sticks may avoid doctors and medical attention, so the magnitude of this problem is likely to be underestimated.
Just to be clear: this phobia is do not limited to people who are overly sensitive to pain or who are not “tough enough”. It can affect anyone. The cause is often unknown, but a particularly traumatic experience during a childhood medical illness can set the stage for some people. And there may be a genetic component. Researchers have found genes linked to fainting after needle sticks, and trypanophobia sometimes runs rampant in families.
What are the symptoms of this phobia?
People with trypanophobia who are considering a needle stick may experience
- fear or anxiety
- panic attacks, nausea, or sweating
- fainting (due to a reflex in which pain or the sight of blood triggers a drop in blood pressure)
- insomnia in the days or weeks before a planned needle stick.
How Does Fear Of Needles Affect You?
This fear can affect your
- quality of life: It’s quite unpleasant to spend weeks dreading an upcoming doctor’s appointment.
- health: Skipping recommended tests and treatments to avoid needle sticks can lead to missed diagnoses, poorly monitored medical conditions, and undertreatment. A timely example is to forgo vaccination against COVID-19, which can have serious and even fatal consequences. Additionally, marketers sometimes play on the fear of needles in their advertising or may downplay that a drug requires an injection.
- longevity: Skipping routine medical care can contribute to preventable suffering and death. For example, a cancerous breast mass that could have been detected during a routine exam may go unnoticed much later, when it can no longer be cured.
What can you do to cope with the fear of needles?
There isn’t a lot of high-quality research on how best to treat trypanophobia. Still, experts suggest a number of options to help people cope.
- Provide support, if allowed. It’s a routine for little kids. But holding hands or hearing the voice of a spouse, trusted friend, or family member can also calm adults.
- Harness the power of distraction (see this amazing video of a pediatrician distracting a young child before a vaccination). Focus on something other than the needle stick: a stain on the floor, the positive effects of the COVID-19 vaccine (soon you can hug your family!), Or your next vacation.
- Tell the person who injects or draws your blood that you are having trouble with this, and tell them what works best for you. Some people prefer to hear about each step before it happens, so there are no surprises. Ask if the health care provider has any tips in the trade to help you get by.
- Ask the person injecting or drawing blood if they can use a numbing agent similar to novocaine or an ice-cold spray to numb the skin before a needle stick.
- Do not look! It is not helpful to watch the entire preparation for the needle stick or see the needle itself. Watching can make things worse.
- Learn to relax. Try deep breathing or other relaxation techniques you can do before you get the needle stick.
- Also relax the muscle receiving the injection. Some vaccines, such as the vaccines that protect you against tetanus or COVID-19, are given into a muscle. Relaxing the muscle can ease the pain of these hits.
- Lie down before you have the needle stick if you have passed out or felt dizzy in the past with needle sticks.
Can therapy help?
Consulting a mental health specialist can be helpful. He or she can recommend
- cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, which teaches people how to reframe unnecessary thought patterns and develop coping strategies.
- exposure therapy, a gradual and supervised increase in your exposure to needles, which can reduce the panic they cause. For example, over a number of weeks you may be asked to look at pictures of needles, then hold a syringe without a needle, then hold a syringe with a needle, then imagine an injection – all with the advice from a therapist – before actually having one.
- Medicines, such as anti-anxiety or sedative medications, may be prescribed if other measures are not effective and the anxiety surrounding the needle sticks interferes with medical care (or just makes you miserable).
The bottom line
It’s natural to have an aversion to pain, even when you know it’s coming and even if it’s for a good reason. So if you are one of the millions of people who are worried about getting a COVID-19 vaccine, blood test, or any other needle stick, know that you are not alone and that there are things that you can do to improve the situation. Talk to your doctor about your fear and get help if you need it. Your quality of life, health and longevity could depend on it.
As for me, I’m going to do what I always do: look away and stare at this spot on the floor.
Follow me on Twitter @RobShmerling
The post Terrified of needles? This May Affect Your Health First appeared on the Harvard Health Blog.
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