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.
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.
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.
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.
- Hamilton, J. G. (n.d.). Needle phobia: A neglected diagnosis. Needle Phobia. Retrieved from http://needlephobia.info/pages/Hamilton-Needlephobia.pdf.
- 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/
- The phobia list. (n.d.). The Phobia List. Retrieved from http://phobialist.com/
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