Needle Phobia: A Potentially Deadly Diagnosis

Empty waiting room The world of psychiatry is full of unusual phobias. There’s symmetrophobia, the fear of symmetry, xerophobia, the fear of dryness, and ideophobia, the fear of ideas. But these phobias are exceedingly rare, and in the psychiatric interest on strange phobias, more mundane—and more dangerous—phobias are easily forgotten. Needle phobia is one such fear. There is significant evidence that fear of needles sparks physical changes in the body that can result in cardiac episodes and other health problems when a patient is exposed to needles. But needles are a part of life and are often necessary for medical treatment. Needle phobia, then, can cause a person to avoid life-saving care and, if a needle is forced upon a phobic patient, the results could be disastrous.

Needle Phobia and Cardiac Episodes
Most people dislike needles, but a true needle phobia feels overwhelming and uncontrollable to patients. People who have needle phobia may experience an extremely elevated heart rate and blood pressure immediately before a needle puncture. When the puncture occurs, the heart rate may drop precipitously. This exposes them to significant danger of heart arrhythmias and other cardiac episodes. Dr. James Hamilton, a pioneer in the treatment and study of needle phobia, reports that at least 23 deaths have been caused by a needle puncture that led to a cardiac episode.

Medical Issues
Doctors, nurses, and other people tasked with administering vaccinations and drawing blood are not typically properly educated about needle phobia. They’re accustomed to patients who dislike needles and may reassure them with promises that the puncture won’t hurt or will only take a minute. But with a true needle phobic, these reassurances don’t work. The person isn’t afraid of pain or injury: he or she is afraid of the needle itself. This poses serious obstacles to medical treatment. As many as 10% of people have some degree of needle phobia, and a significant portion of these individuals report that they would rather die than receive a needle puncture. These people tend to avoid medical care because of their fear, allowing their illnesses much more time to worsen than illnesses of nonphobic people.

Causes
Although traumatic experiences with needles such as painful blood draws or blood transfusions can cause needle phobia, people can’t typically trace the origin of the phobia. Needle phobia seems to run in families, but this does not mean the fear is genetic. Children may learn it from watching their parents show fear of needles. Restraining children during vaccinations and blood draws is strongly correlated with the later development of needle phobia. Consequently, parents should strive to ensure that their children’s early experiences with needles are positive and that children are not restrained unless the needle puncture is needed immediately to save the child’s life.

Treatment
Some people have good luck with hypnotherapy, but the most common treatment for needle phobia is counterconditioning. This process can take several years because the mere sight of a needle is sufficient to send many patients into a full-blown panic attack. Treatment providers typically start by asking the person to envision a needle, progress to showing the person a needle, and ultimately move toward getting the person to accept a needle puncture. For people who require needles for medical treatment, it may be necessary to administer general anesthesia to prevent life-threatening reactions. In less severe cases, anti-anxiety medications can lessen the symptoms of needle phobia.

Sources:

  1. Hamilton, J. G. (n.d.). Needle phobia: A neglected diagnosis. Needle Phobia. Retrieved from http://needlephobia.info/pages/Hamilton-Needlephobia.pdf.
  2. Emanuelson, J. (n.d.). The Needle Phobia Page – fear of needles and needle procedures. The Needle Phobia Page – Fear of Needles and Needle Procedures. Retrieved from http://www.needlephobia.com/
  3. The phobia list. (n.d.). The Phobia List. Retrieved from http://phobialist.com/

Related articles:
The Other Side of Normal: An Interview With Jordan Smoller
Three Steps for Dealing with Panic Attacks
Breathing Lessons

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  • Doc LC

    July 19th, 2012 at 11:35 AM

    In my practice this kind of phobia is something that we encounter all the time. We have to put a lot of our patients to sleep for surgery when it cannot be performed under local anesthetic and there are some patients who almost can’t tolerate the thought of a needle getting anywhere near them. Some want us to bottle the anesthesia and sell to them but for others this poses such a fright to them that it can make doing surgery on them nearly impossible.

  • cheryl c

    July 19th, 2012 at 3:39 PM

    Isn’t it weird how these phobias will just jump up out of nowhere sometimes when you least expect it?

    Is it like they just kind of start small and then become these full fledged fears?

    i guess I am lucky I have never had anything like this affect me.

  • Benny

    July 19th, 2012 at 7:17 PM

    Always hated needles as a kid but never thought it could be a full-blown phobia in people.with so much of needle usage in medical procedures this phobia can really come in the way of treatment. therefore it becomes necessary to tackle this issue and the methods mentioned here seem like a good idea.but I would like to see a more to-the-roots method to tackle this problem, by going back into how the fear developed. that will be much better from the patient’s point of view if I’m not wrong.

  • Jenn

    July 20th, 2012 at 4:19 AM

    That’s so freaky! I know that there are those who don’t like being stuck, but I had never given any thought at all that someone could have an actual diagnosable phobia about needles. Think about complicated this must make their lives. That would rule out many forms of restorative dental treatment, no checking blood for potentially harmful diseases, and just so many other things that could be limited due to this fear. I do hope that those who have this sort of phobia have some treatment options and that they are able to think clearly enough to seek this help out.

  • Carl

    July 26th, 2017 at 1:18 PM

    We don’t. We genuinely don’t.

  • Meghan A.

    September 25th, 2018 at 1:10 PM

    It’s very discouraging. I’ve asked so many doctors to give me nitrous oxide so that I won’t be able to panic or faint but they just don’t offer that kind of service, or won’t. I haven’t had bloodwork done in so long and it’s very stressful when you’re very sick and can’t figure out the cause without bloodwork, so you just hope for the best. Doctors really should start offering SOMETHING like nitrous oxide to help, this is a legitimate phobia and it is not fair to us to just ignore it.

  • carmen samms

    July 20th, 2012 at 11:31 AM

    Unless you have known the pain of living with a phobia, then you have very little idea just how profoundly it can affect your life.
    You may not want to leave your house, or can’t be in a small contained space, or in a case like this, even refuse the most basic medical care due to that fear of needles that you know you have but cannot explain.
    There needs to be a greater overall awareness that this is a problem in much of the population and rather than ridiculing these fears as small and inconsequential (because believe me, to those who suffer from phobias, the fear is anything but small) we have to be kinder towards one naother and help them get past their fears rather than creating even more stress and anxiey in their lives.

  • Kevin

    July 21st, 2012 at 10:42 AM

    Well, they will get over that phobia pretty fast if it meant the difference between life and death!

  • Ellie

    September 11th, 2017 at 5:28 AM

    With all due respect, Kevin, I don’t think you understand what being needle-phobic is like. As a child, I have had full blown panic attacks at the very sight of a tray of syringes at the pediatrician’s office. The very smell of the disinfectant at the doctor’s office would make me hyperventilate. I have forced my way out of examination rooms, pushed nurses away from my physically and climbed up to places where I could not be reached just to avoid getting a vaccination or my blood drawn. Afterwards, I always know I overreacted, but that doesn’t make me able to stop while I’m having the overwhelming reaction to the phobia. I distinctly recall my mother telling me when I was little “do you want (insert disease name)? If you get it, it could kill you.” Or “you won’t get to go to Europe to see your grandfather before he passes away if you don’t get this shot” to both I always responded “I wish I was dead and not here!” and “so I don’t have to get it? I can stay home?” I felt like I would do anything in the world to get out of being stuck with a needle. Even risk my own death to avoid it. I used to hide from my mother before doctor’s appointments to avoid being dragged to the office, and once before an MRI, I had to be strapped forcefully to a chair just to get contrast injected into my arm.

    It really isn’t something you can just get over because you might die. The people, like me, who suffer from this would rather die than get the shot. They would rather die of some terrible disease than have the needle stuck into them.
    I am now sixteen years old, and I have been unable to get a vaccination “like a normal person” since infancy. Despite how my mother yells and says she’s ashamed of how I react. It’s a behavior that I can’t control.

  • Trinka

    August 28th, 2019 at 2:02 PM

    I did the same thing as a kid/ teen. I’ve punched Dr’s who said they were going to give a prescription, then showed up with a syringe. Jumped out of windows, etc. Now, I’m facing the dentist, whom I haven’t been to in a very long time, and she was babbling on and on about blood draws instead of what she was supposed to do! Not sure I can go back to her or any other dentist now they have the power to draw blood

  • Savannah

    July 21st, 2012 at 4:05 PM

    Kevin-
    I hate to point this out to you but for some people they are so scared of needle sticks that this could actually cause them to have a heart attack and die!

    I know that this would be an extreme case but there are people who are so afraid that it would then be dangerous to actually do anything to them that would require this sort of act.

    Maybe they just have to be made comfortable in another way before getting a needle stick, maybe something like mitrous oxide would be beneficial for cases like this.

  • Frannie

    July 23rd, 2012 at 4:30 PM

    Has there ever been a study done to determine whether someone has to have a bad experience with something, a needle in thsi case, to have this sort of fear about it, or does it generally just come from nowhere? I mean, I guess someone could have a phobia about needles because they had a bad experience at the doctor, but some phobias are just so bizarre that it would seem weird that they would have ever even encountered this is their everday lives.

  • Trinka

    August 28th, 2019 at 2:06 PM

    My phobia came from childhood trauma. I was held down before injections, my mother used them as punishment, either stabbing me with pins or knives, or driving me to the dr. for unnecessary shots. Yes, mine is very real, and has caused me to have heart palpitations/ fainting/ vomiting etc.

  • Nancy

    May 14th, 2013 at 6:44 AM

    When I was 5 I had to get a blood test before a surgery. The nurse couldn’t find the vein in one arm, so moved to the other. She then got the needle STUCK in my arm and the needle BURST! I remember it spouting out of the needle like a fountain. Very traumatic. I am needle phobic now – from blood tests to IV’s (the WORST is IVs’) and even flu shots! I will have them done, but my BP shoots up whenever I see a needle.

  • Rick Thomas

    November 22nd, 2013 at 12:01 AM

    i am 48 years old and never ever take vaccinations but everyone i know is always sick!!! i am a severe Needle Phobic for the past 39 years never had a Needle in me for any reason and never will period! i was stabbed by 4 doctors in Wisconsin back in 1976 for a ear infection with a 2 inch needle in the back of my arm right to the bone these bastards Held me down. so i am a very angry person and will seriously hurt anyone who brings a Needle around me. its my turn now and they can all f– off save your children they think there god its your choice tell them NO!!!! THIS IS A DEPOPULATION way to make people sick to die off! ITS ALL POISON. Rick

  • Mario

    December 10th, 2013 at 11:35 PM

    First please excuse my poor english. I have needle phobia and it started when I was around 10 or 11 years old and kept growing afterwords to the point that I even fainted because of a diabetes blood test (the needle little used on the tip of the finger to extract a little blood drop). I’m getting married soon and MUST get a compulsory pre-marriage blood test and I CANNOT DO THAT. doctors over here always take it as a joke or they’ll try to ease the problem by saying nonsense things (like its not painful, it would take only seconds, try to think of something else… etc).

    So my (purely medical) question is, is it possible that they could put me to sleep then do the blood test? I did that to treat my wisdom teeth few years ago, but does it also work for blood tests? or the anesthesia will make my blood not in its best form to be examined? please say its ok.. you gonna help creating a family :)

  • hunter

    October 24th, 2014 at 11:26 PM

    I have a difficult time even reading this content due to my issues with needles… my blood pressure and heart rate is sky high right now. its not the pain… cant explain it but.. JUST SAY NO to needles (ha!)… seriously though… urrg.. no needles 4 me.

  • Daelin

    June 27th, 2016 at 12:52 PM

    It is very important to differentiate between needle phobia and severe discomfort with the idea of needles. I know too many people that let their discomfort with needles keep them in fear of doctors and of donating blood or having their blood tested. A strong-willed person can easily overcome nervousness. However, a true phobia is, by definition, a condition and can’t easily be resolved with brain-power. For those with a legitimate phobia, doctors have to know how to calm them and control the situation when needles are necessary.

  • MORGAN

    August 22nd, 2016 at 9:52 PM

    Kicked a nurse in the face when she came close to me with a needle. Need to get my servely impacted wisdom teeth out but refuse because of the IV. Also need to get a life or death blood test but 150% CANNOT do that. Sounds crazy but I would RATHER die than get that done. How can some people calmly drive to the doctors, walk through the doors, sit down, and show their bare arm waiting to be STABBED??????????? Am I missing something. If I ever become pregnant I cannot get the monthly blood tests either, or the epidural.

  • Shy

    March 7th, 2017 at 9:35 AM

    I don’t know what to do I think I have this I am also scared of diying I could cry because I’m so scared right know I’m really worried about having injections tomorrow

  • Sarah

    July 27th, 2017 at 6:08 PM

    I have lived with a needle & blood phobia all my life. It probably stemmed from all the times I was held down at the doctor’s office for vaccinations or blood draws…but by the time I was 20, things that even reminded me of doctors (a person walking towards me in a white winter coat made me cross the street and return home because I got so frightened) In the last 40 years , I have tried biofeedback, applied tension, 3 different talk therapists, and EMDR. They all helped but none were able to completely get rid of the phobia. I am able to go to the doctor, see a needle (be in the room when someone else has an injection or blood draw) but when I feel the needle in my arm…all bets are off. Not only can I faint (even laying down) but have a seizure. All of it caused by a vaso vagal response. It doesn’t help that I have small, rolling veins and techs always have a very hard time of it. The best I can hope for is someone who takes my fears seriously, and can offer me a sedative ahead of time. Lately, it has felt as if nurses and techs are so pressured to be able to do it quickly and so they can get their work done…that patient care goes out the window. Not helpful for needle phobes!

  • Lila

    May 24th, 2018 at 10:58 AM

    My friend screams and curls up into a ball at the sight of a needle

  • rose d.

    October 26th, 2018 at 4:02 AM

    I am too an extreme extreme EXTREME needle phobe I have been de registered by my gp (uk) as I refused to have blood drawn for thyroid check up or go for a smear test accumilating in a complaint (ongoing) with the government obudsman. My phobia is so bad I fly into a blind panic attack of which I don’t remember which includes lashing out, screaming ,shouting and a dangerously high blood preasure reading. Some of the comments of the get over it attitude etc are not contusive. If someone was afraid of spiders would they be happy if I dangled a large arachnid at them? If someone was a clown phobic would I dress up and stand in front of them? . No.

  • Bob

    May 27th, 2021 at 5:34 PM

    Has anybody found any solutions by chance?

  • Sarah

    May 28th, 2021 at 8:37 AM

    Yes, I have found some things which help. To be honest, I have tried every different type of therapy for needle phobia. Initially biofeedback (you learn techniques to relax and control some of your body’s responses to the sight of needles), talk therapy (where you revisit what happened to you that makes you afraid), desensitization (where you slowly visualize and then really see the things that scare you-often with end up touching a syringe or using a syringe) and finally using a technique called EMDR (psychotherapy which involves a therapist trains your brain to reprocess and desensitize you from the trauma that happened to you so you have less of a fear response. I have done all of these things. It does not mean I no longer afraid of needles…I am ! But I no longer let it stop me from having a medical procedure that I might need. I encourage you to learn how to talk to medical personnel so they can help you through any needle process. One thing I figured out on my own was to use a VR headset when I am getting an IV. They cost just 20.00 here in the U.S. You can put your mobile phone in it and play 3-D video’s in it to distract you while they work on you. With the help of therapy & EMDR, this has allowed me to not just dismiss getting vaccinations, and medical procedures.

  • Pat

    July 4th, 2021 at 10:31 AM

    I have the worst form of Needle Phobia any Doctor has ever seen, it is on all my medical records and highlighted, back in 2004I had a tooth
    abscess I ignored the consequence was a heart attack, I didn’t go to Doctor’s as I feared needles so bad, I was rushed off to the Hospital and next thing I remember I had an IV in and in the ICU. Next, off to the dentist, this idiot was trying to load my gums with something in his needle, I was banging on the dentist chair arm to stop, I couldn’t handle the pain, I went right through a plate glass window in to the parking lot. to this day any medical procedure involving a needle I need General Anesthetic, laughing gas don’t cut it as you are still conscious. I had shoulder surgery last month and needed Ketamine and Midazolam to settle me down, well someone loaded a needle with Ketamine, I came right apart once seen that needle and a tag with my name on it he unscrewed the needle tip now he has a syringe thank god. I was given a pill for the Midazolam and the ketamine was to remain under my tongue for 5 minutes then swallow, all this made me a bit loopie but I was very aware of my surroundings still. I become very combative if a needle is brought around me, one nurse found out the hard way back in 2011, and I make a bolt for the door with my keys in hand.

  • Bob

    July 6th, 2021 at 10:12 AM

    Hi Pat,
    Sorry that you have this problem too, I’m glad you made it after your heart attack. The worst part of the needle phobia to me besides the obviously life threatening potential this phobia has on us, is that you can’t explain it to anyone who hasn’t witnessed it.

    I have tried to explain my issue with many doctors, ER nurses as well as my psychiatrist about this issue. The only solution they offer is, “nobody likes needles” or anything else that they can think of to belittle you. So now of course, I just don’t even try. I haven’t seen a doctor besides my psychiatrist in years. I figure one day my health will be bad enough that I get forced to go and deal with it, or I’ll just die and I won’t have to deal with it anymore. People really have no idea what it is like to live with something as toxic as being afraid of needles, it’s just not normal and I get that, but it sucks. As a man, it is very hard to live with this as well with the added societal pressure of “being tough”. Everybody I know thinks it’s hysterical that I don’t get blood work drawn or whatever needs to get done, while I just sit there, take it and die a little more on the inside because I deep down inside truly want to get bloodwork and take care of myself because I don’t want my daughter to grow up without a dad.

    Although my version of this phobia is different then yours, I feel your pain. I wish I could offer advice, but I have none. I’ve been following this post’s comments hoping one day maybe somebody who understands or has experienced this will finally have an answer for us. I’d say keep trying, but I know you won’t because of how people like us are. I really hope one day society figures out that this is a very real issue for some people. I would hate for my kids to go through what I’ve gone through in life with this obstacle. This is literally the closest article to explaining what really is my problem that I have read.

    I hope you find whatever you need soon.

  • Kait

    August 26th, 2021 at 8:46 AM

    Although having this phobia is an absolute nightmare, having this article to read and seeing that I’m not crazy for being like this was slightly comforting. I am a disability worker so the pressure is on for me to have the COVID jab… I have been a needle phobic for over 20 years and have become worse over time. I have had a total of 2 blood tests in my life one of them of which I had a vasovagal response (seizure) following it. I have put off my University course due to the placement requirements for immunisations and literally reconsidered my career choice JUST because I can’t bring myself to getting the needles they need done and have ended up in full blown panic attacks and rapid hyperventilating even at the mere THOUGHT of having them done. As mentioned a couple times already, the worse part is that no one gets it! When people try to tell you “you just have to go in there and get someone to hold your hand” I become so distressed mentally/emotionally that I can’t even talk about it because I’ll just burst into tears. I know that by me not having the COVID vax I’m putting others and myself at risk but for me the fear of needles just blurs out everything else and that feels horrible! I’m ashamed that I am thinking that way! But it’s SO hard to think about anything else when all you are focusing on is the fear. Anyway where I’m at with this dilemma now, my doctor has recommended giving me benzodiazepine prior to having a needle. I’ve booked a doctors apt to TALK about getting the vax due to the constant peer pressure and burst into tears just after booking that! I’m worried about my fear being so strong that any sedative won’t have effect! Argh it’s actually crazy how much this phobia can control your life and jeopardise your health! Fingers crossed for a solution one day but (not to be downer or anything) it’s not really seen as a priority, just something we are expected to grown out of or get over. :( has anyone here had the Covid jab or is struggling with getting it?

  • Sarah

    August 26th, 2021 at 5:38 PM

    I have had the Covid Vaccine (both Jabs). I had to prepare weeks ahead of time to figure out how to do it. I suggest you do get some sort of mild sedative. I typically get 1-3 mgs of Valium to visit the dentist or a medical professional. (even without a needle but most physicians will provide you with something if you have been given a DSM diagnosis. Although, you didn’t mention if you were option to therapy…I really suggest it…for the only reason…it legitimizes your need for support when and if you have to get a needle or have any procedure that makes you nervous. That said, these are the things I did to get the Covid vaccination. 1) Take a valium. 2) Have a friend drive me to a drive through clinic. (that way I am in a place I know, and I am separated from the person giving the injection 3) I practiced all the things I do to keep myself calm (breathing exercises , progressive muscle relaxation techniques -tighten leg or arm for 5 full seconds and relax but focus on each area of the body and go through the whole body, 4) Bring a head set with ear plugs and listen to music 5) Have your friend who is with you know what you need before during and after ..my friend helped with the paperwork and answered questions so I could concentrate on relaxing. She told people I was needlephobic and had medical PTSD , so once they knew that…they were much kinder. And lastly, treat yourself to something AFTERWARD. have something to look forward to. Don’t let people tell you that its just 2 seconds …I totally understand where you are coming from. i avoided doctors for 20 years of my life. And I heard that 2% of the people who are not getting the vaccination for Covid are because they are needlephobic. So you are not alone.

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