For up to 21 percent of Americans, the scariest thing in a doctor’s office is a needle.
This surprisingly common phobia can be so extreme that sufferers put their health at risk by avoiding blood tests, shots, injected medications, or even avoid seeing a healthcare provider at all.
People who are terrified of needles may experience dramatic changes in blood pressure or even faint at the sight of one—symptoms that rarely occur with other phobias, such as fear of heights or open spaces. According to new research, there are at least 23 reported deaths attributed directly to needle phobia and the extreme physical reactions it can trigger.
Some sufferers even say they’d rather die than get jabbed with a needle—and that could actually happen if someone with a serious condition, such as a diabetic who needs insulin injections or a cancer patient who needs chemotherapy, refuses to be treated.
The good news, however, is that there are several ways to overcome this phobia and protect your health. And intriguing new technologies are taking the ouch out of injections.
One survey found that more than 15 million US adults and five million kids over age 5 describe themselves as needle phobic or experience unusually high pain during a blood draw or injection.
Of this group, 3.5 million adults have refused blood tests or medically recommended injections at some point during their lives—and 50 percent missed out on necessary healthcare as a result. Twenty-five percent of those surveyed suffered other adverse consequences, such as being turned down for insurance coverage, losing job offers, or being denied admission to school, the researchers reported.
For people with this fear, a panic reaction can be triggered by the thought, sight, sounds or pain associated with getting jabbed. Medical terms related to this phobia include:
Needle phobia is recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Edition Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR—the “bible” of psychiatry) as a Specific Phobia, Blood-Injection-Injury Type. There is often an overlap between people who have a phobic reaction to the sight of blood and those who fear needles.
About 10 percent of Americans have full-blown needle phobia, experts report, while two national surveys reported that 21 percent of those polled say that they have some degree of this fear.
As is also the case with other phobias, symptoms can vary according to the person’s level of terror. Signs of needle phobia include rapid or irregular heart rate, a sudden change in blood pressure (a rise or fall, or rise followed by a drop), shaking, dizziness or fainting, nausea, sweating, and feelings of panic.
For example, actress Emma Stone reportedly suffered a “full-on meltdown” when a medic needed to take a blood sample. “I had a true, genuine blackout…spiral pbobia of needles,” the Help star told Jay Leno recently, describing “panicking” and “many tears” during a blood test that revealed a vitamin D deficiency.
Researchers report that up to 80 percent of needle-phobic people have affected relatives, suggesting that there may be a genetic component. One theory is that this trait evolved to protect people in primordial times, when an animal bite—or being jabbed by a tusk or weapon—could cause dangerous complications, including a life-threatening infection.
Other experts believe that a combination of genes and learned behavior may be the culprit. For example, after a traumatic experience with a needle (such as being jabbed by a clumsy doctor or dentist), a child could develop the phobia, which usually starts before age 10.
However, the extreme physical symptoms—such as dramatic changes in heart rate and blood pressure, leading to fainting or dizziness (medically known as vasovagal reflex) some sufferers experience probably stem from genetic susceptibility, this theory holds.
Among the therapies that doctors typically advise for people who swoon at the sight of a needle are mild (oral) sedatives, numbing creams to reduce pain, and “stress-reducing” needles, such as those decorated with butterflies. In one study of chemotherapy patients, such needles reduced phobic reactions by 76 percent in kids and 92 percent in adults.
Psychotherapy—particularly a treatment called “exposure therapy,” in which people with a phobia gradually confront and conquer their fear during brief therapy that also includes relaxation techniques—can also be helpful.
To make injections virtually painless, a new technology involves microneedles: tiny needles much thinner than a human hair. These mini-needles are too short to reach nerves, and slowly release medication over time. In a 2010 animal study, a flu shot using microneedles also triggered a more effective immune response than a shot delivered with a conventional needle.
A new review of microneedle studies reports that more than 350 scientific papers have been published about this technology, including human studies. Uses of these needles include:
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