At the tender age of ten, Annaleise Pizzimenti knew she was scared of needles. She had felt sick after a simple vaccination. She’d forgotten all about her reaction to needles until her dentist needed to use one. This time, that same old sick feeling was accompanied by panic.
Her fear of needles increased to a point where she refused to get medical treatment altogether and was way behind on her vaccinations. “I avoided the doctor, particularly if I knew that a blood test or something was involved. I definitely avoided the dentist, I would rarely go, because a lot of the time they’d tell me, ‘you have to have a filling’,” she said.
Experts believe that up to five percent of the population suffers from a fear of needles, making Annaleise’s situation quite common.
It’s not just discomfort
People rarely enjoy injections but for people with needle phobia, it’s a lot worse than a feeling of discomfort at the thought of that needle prick. Symptoms may include anxiety or panic, pain in the chest, hot or cold flushes, and even dizziness and nausea, when interacting with needles.
The apprehension that most of us feel around needles is not as severe as those with needle phobias, especially when it interferes with their day to day lives. It causes people to skip medical procedures that may involve needles, or activities that increase the possibility of them coming into contact with needles.
The fear may be about getting injected or it may be associated with a sour experience involving needles like a very painful injection or fainting.
The fear of needles is part of a larger set of phobias – the blood-injection-injury phobia. People may have an excessive fear of the sight of blood, or the possibility of a medical procedure, or injections – at times, all three.
Dizziness or fainting
Some people with needle phobia don’t even need to be in the same room as the procedure involving the needle to feel dizzy or faint. Fainting is a unique response to needle phobias that doesn’t happen to people with another type of fear.
In response to fear, our heart-rate increases and our blood pressure rises. Fainting, however, requires our blood pressure to drop so low that the flow of oxygenated blood to the brain is reduced and the person passes out. In people who faint around needles, their blood pressure shoots up as expected but suddenly drops. This is known as “vasovagal syncope”.
Professor Page explains, “If you look at what happens when you’re losing a lot of blood, you get a reduction in blood flow coming back to the heart. The response of that is, the heart will stop pumping hard because it doesn’t want to push the remaining blood out. So one explanation could be that it’s a mechanism to reduce blood flow when you are injured.”
People who faint at the sight of needles sometimes begin to fear fainting, making the phobia a lot more complicated to defeat.
Staying away from Medical Professionals
There is no hard data that shows us the extent to which needle phobia affects health outcomes. A large number of medical procedures involve needles, which means that a number of medical conditions and diagnoses are affected.
Treating the phobia
When Pizzimenti was studying animal science at the university, the impact her phobia could have on here future hit her. She had been in denial that she would be able to get through life while avoiding needles. “My health was really at risk at this point, because I was working with animals and I was five years’ overdue for my tetanus vaccine. My wisdom teeth were giving me a lot of grief,” she said.
She sought out a therapist who specialized in needle phobias and went through a process of “graded exposure” to needles, where people are exposed to more intense needle stimuli. The initial stages may involve looking at images of needles, then being around real needles, touching them, seeing others getting injected and eventually, being injected themselves.
Patients who faint around needles are taught “applied tension”. This involves tensing the large muscles of the body, pushing blood pressure up and resisting fainting.
The therapy helped Pizzimenti conquer her fear of needles. Her job as a dental nurse requires her to prepare needles and watch patients get injected. Although the fear hasn’t been eliminated entirely, it is manageable.
“It’s normal. It’s not something we should be ashamed of, we should be encouraged to get the help that we need no matter how long it takes.”