Who’s Afraid of a Teeny, Tiny Little Needle?

On the list of what frightens people most, ranking right up there with spiders, snakes and heights are needles. In fact, the extreme fear of medical procedures involving needles is a valid phobia with an ominous name: trypanophobia. Charyn Caruso, a phlebotomist for Grove City Medical Center has worked with her share of patients who suffer from the condition throughout her 20-year career. “It’s a very real fear that can be debilitating for the patient, but it can also present a risk to the healthcare provider who is performing the procedure,” she said.

Children and adults alike can be trypanophobic, and the tendencies they may exhibit when facing a procedure involving a needle run the gamut. Some patients tremble and cry, while those on the extreme opposite end of the anxiety spectrum may vomit or even pass out.

The situation can turn especially dicey when a patient jerks away or strikes the hand of the doctor, nurse or phlebotomist who is handling a sharp needle. “When a patient lashes out physically, it becomes unsafe for the healthcare provider, because they can end up with an unintentional needle stick,” explained Caruso.

An estimated 25 percent of adults are afraid of needles, and about 7 percent of them avoid immunizations because of their fear. Caruso recalled one patient, a strapping policeman who put off having his bloodwork for eight months while he worked up the courage to face his fears.
Although most children have a fear of needles, it typically decreases as they get older, and it is more common in females than males, according to studies by the American Medical Association.

Caruso employs a variety of strategies to help anxious patients get through their blood draw as comfortably as possible. “I always talk to the patient calmly, distracting their attention from the needle while validating their fear,” she said. Fellow phlebotomist Tracey Schultz says she tells her fearful patients that she is very afraid of having dental procedures. “I think it helps them to know their fears aren’t irrational and they are not alone in having them,” she said.

With some patients, Caruso finds it helpful for staff to trade places. “Once in a while, and for no apparent reason, a patient simply does not respond to one phlebotomist, but is fine with another,” she said. “As healthcare providers, we learn not to take that sort of thing personally.”
Anxious patients typically scrutinize every element of their procedure and ask for a detailed description as it’s happening, but others prefer to look away. Some go through a ritual that often includes an object that provides them with security, along the lines of a lucky charm. “Whatever it takes, within reason, for them to get through the procedure safely and comfortably is fine with us,” said Caruso.

Tips for Overcoming Your Fear of Needles
1. Tell the person who is providing your care. They can answer any questions you have and help you cope with the procedure by chatting with you to distract you.
2. Think about what has helped you cope in the past—can you use the same technique to help you again?
3. Try deep, controlled breathing to help you relax.