For at least 50 million Americans, even thinking about getting a shot sends them to heart-pounding phobic levels. A University of New Mexico medical team found an unusual way to make it all better.
A strong aversion to needles affects up to 40% of adults and 50% of adolescents. And it’s definitely not “all in their heads.”
That’s what drove six UM researchers to see if linking needles to more pleasant images would ease patients’ fears. They decorated needles with butterflies, smiley faces and musical notes to see if it would help.
It did, and the difference was significant.
Even Doctors Suffer
Needle phobia is not a fear that people can shake off with logical thinking. Dr. James Hamilton of Duke University in Durham, NC, is proof of that. He has the problem. So do his brother, uncle, and two of his first cousins. They're all doctors.
Genetics can definitely play a role. The Hamiltons may have an inherited vasovagal reflex reaction. That is the case with about half the people who suffer needle phobias.
In vasovagal reflex reactions, the sight or thought of a needle over-stimulates the vagus nerve. That sets off a chain of possible reactions in the body. Some people get dizzy, some turn pale, and some get nauseated or start sweating. And some people faint because their blood pressure drops drastically.
Fainting is embarrassing, but it could be worse.
Dr. Hamilton has studied the problem for years and he has found 63 symptoms related to needle phobias, including transient psychosis, combativeness, random motor movements, rolling eyeballs, involuntary loss of bowel or bladder control, seizures, clenching of the jaw muscles, loss of responsiveness and transient coma.
The Psychological Element
Needle phobia is so common that the DSM-IV, the book that is counted as the bible for legitimate psychiatric terms, now lists aichmophobia as a recognized diagnosis. The term actually means a fear of sharp or pointed objects. Other long names for it—should you want to show off to your friends—are belonephobia (meaning fear of pins and needles) and trypanophobia (meaning fear of injections).
The recommendation to help needle phobias that you will find most often calls for exposure therapy. The therapist introduces mild stimulants like a picture of a needle to start and escalates to stronger challenges until the patient has become desensitized. It’s effective but has some drawbacks that prevent many people from using it.
This therapy takes time and finding a good psychotherapist. But the real issue is that there’s a high expenditure unless your insurance company is generous. Most patients require 10-12 sessions. Unless your needle fear reaches true phobic proportions, it’s unlikely to be covered by insurance. The tab would run about $3,000 or more unless you respond quickly.
There are a couple of other options, including pretty needles.
Pretty Pictures Decreased Fear
The New Mexico research team tested their theory on 60 patients. The mix was two-thirds female, one-third male. The majority (59%) were adults, and 41% were children.
That mix represents the typical population that walks into an outpatient clinic.
For patients who got shots with decorated syringes, their aversion scores fell 79%. Their fear dropped by 53%, and their anxiety decreased by 51%.
Flower designs were good, and so were smiley faces. But surprisingly the most effective decoration was a design showing musical notes.
Results for patients who got injections with butterfly needles—the kind used with IV's—were similar. In this case, the researchers literally decorated the needles with life-size artificial butterflies.
Again fear and anxiety fell by 53%.
Unfortunately, despite these results, no medical supply company has delivered on the promise. If you are a parent, or phobic yourself, you might try a DIY version and take your butterflies or some stickers with you.
Or you could opt for the second choice, which will be more familiar to the doctors and nurses who give needles.
Try Bees and Ladybugs
Thousands of children and adults have turned to Buzzy®, a device made by Pain Care Labs.
The children’s version of Buzzy is cute. It looks like a bee or ladybug.
This device combines cooling with muscle stimulation. The combination confuses the body enough to reduce the sensation of a needle puncture nearby. Adults can order a plain black version of the device.
Some hospitals and practices have Buzzy’s to use for patients, but most don’t. So you can take your own Buzzy along for appointments.
Needle phobias that persist past childhood are not likely to go away on their own, but a butterfly or Buzzy might make it better.