Pokes, jabs, and injections — needles can be painful and anxiety-inducing. Whether for a vaccine, a specialty medication, daily insulin, IVF treatment, or blood draws, there are several reasons you may encounter needles at one point or another. While many develop ways to overcome fear, anxiety, and anticipation around needles, others experience needle phobia — a stress response to needles and medical settings.
Needle phobia is common among adults and kids, causing some people to delay or avoid medical care.
Fear of needles causes a physiologic stress response that is both genetic and learned.
Needle phobia is treatable with exposure therapy or cognitive behavior therapy.
What is needle phobia?
Needle phobia has a fancy name — trypanophobia — and it’s quite common. Studies show that needle phobia affects most children and 1 in 4 adults. Unfortunately, this can cause adults to delay medical care, such as vaccines and blood draws. Some parents feel resigned to dragging their child to the doctor’s despite their fears, while others decide to avoid putting their child in contact with needles for any reason. Although needle phobia may be common, there are ways to overcome it.
Symptoms of needle phobia
Fear and anxiety cause physiologic responses. While your brain may know that a needle poke is quick and necessary, your body may elicit physical sensations such as:
- Heart racing;
- Shortness of breath;
- Feelings of panic;
- Drop in blood pressure that may cause fainting;
- Fearful thoughts;
- Trouble sleeping the night before a medical appointment.
Causes of needle phobia
It can be inherited and learned. For example, there is genetic evidence for needle phobia, originating from an inherited vasovagal response, which causes your heart rate and blood pressure to drop without warning. It can also be caused by medical trauma, such as painful experiences in a medical setting. These negative experiences can become associated with a fear of needles. Sometimes, poor interactions with healthcare providers can exacerbate these fears by adding feelings of judgment or shame.
How is needle phobia treated?
At its core, needle phobia is wrapped in fear and anxiety. Experts recommend different strategies to work through the anxiety, including:
- Exposure therapy. This is an intervention that gradually exposes people to their fears. The goal is to reduce fear one step at a time. For needle phobia, this could mean introducing each part of the injection process to help them gain understanding and a sense of control over the process. This can be done at home by watching videos or in person with an experienced provider.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy. For people with a high fear level, working more intensively with a therapist can help them overcome their phobia.
Tips for dealing with needle phobia
While overcoming needle phobia takes time, try these tips to help manage your fear.
- Focus on the why. Understanding the purpose of the poke can help motivate you to see the task through and focus on the benefits.
- Communicate. It’s helpful to let your medical providers know you are afraid of needles. This cues them to suggest interventions that numb or distract from the needle and clarify how to get through the process. For example, for an injection, do you like a countdown? If so, should they count up or down — 1, 2, 3, or 3, 2, 1?
- Numbing cream. Ask your doctor about using numbing cream before pokes. You can also find over-the-counter lidocaine creams or sprays.
- Distraction. Keep your mind off the procedure with music, videos, or conversation.
- Generate calm. Activate your parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for generating calm. Try different breathing techniques ahead of time so that you’ve practiced before you need them.
- Learn applied tension. Activating your core and leg muscles for short periods of time can help regulate your blood pressure to prevent a vasovagal response that could cause fainting. Do this before and after a poke because tense muscles can make an injection feel more painful.
- Child life specialists. For kids, ask your doctor if a child life specialist is available. They are a fantastic resource for developmentally appropriate therapeutic interventions and can also guide parents on supportive versus restraining holds for kids.
- Make a plan. If you receive regular injections or blood draws, ask your medical team to make a note of your preferences in your chart. Do you want them to walk you through each step? Or help distract you? Do you always want to apply numbing cream? Make a plan, so you know what to expect, and your care team can keep it consistent.
- Bring a buddy. There’s nothing like a friend or family member to help you through.
- Rewards! Treat yourself once you’re done. Rewards can be a great motivator.
Needle phobia is common for both kids and adults. It can be managed with different techniques, but it is also possible to overcome through therapeutic methods. It’s important to identify where your fear comes from and then communicate a plan with yourself and your care team to work through it.
- Journal of Advanced Nursing. The fear of needles: A systematic review and meta-analysis.
- Psychological Medicine. Injection fears and COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy.
- Journal of Family Practice. Needle phobia: a neglected diagnosis.
- Cognitive Behaviour Therapy. Exposure-based Interventions for the management of individuals with high levels of needle fear across the lifespan: a clinical practice guideline and call for further research.