I work in healthcare. I am a Certified Medical Assistant. Children hate me. They can’t see my big, goofy smile through my surgical mask. That matters little. They know who I am. I am the man who keeps Mr. Pain in his pocket.
Millions and millions of Americans hate going to see the Doctor. There are a lot of valid reasons for this. One is primarily economic. American healthcare can be extremely expensive. We are the only industrialized nation that has not figured this out, and there is plenty of debate concerning this; however, that argument is for another time. Millions of Americans also hate going to see the Doctor because they refuse to believe they are sick or in need of treatment. That’s all well and good, you hardy lumberjack, you; but many diseases and illnesses have no symptoms, until the affliction decides to kill you. Millions of Americans hate going to the Doctor because they think that all Doctors are quacks, and are just going to take your money. Well, sorry you feel that way, but I’ll probably be the one taking your vitals when the cancer kicks in that could have been avoided had you seen the Doctor sooner to prevent your illness. Millions of Americans hate going to see the Doctor because they believe Western medicine is impure and inherently harmful. There is nothing wrong with yoga, meditation, or tai chi; in fact, Western medicine has embraced these practices. To a degree; I’m really not sure that chamomile tea and ginger root paste is going to cure your diabetes. Just sayin’. But I posit this: Millions of Americans are afraid to go to the Doctor for one simple reason: they are afraid of needles.
Trypanophobia is the fear of medical procedures, especially needles. This is distinguished from aichmophobia, the fear of sharp things. Also, this is not to be confused with iatrophobia, the fear of Doctors, the White Coat syndrome, why your blood pressure goes up in the exam room even though hypertension has never been a problem for you. But back to the fear of needles. There can be good reasons for this. With an injection or a blood draw, metal is entering your flesh, and you may see blood. On an instinctual level, that’s not supposed to happen; even though on a rational level, it may be necessary treatment for an illness. It’s really as simple as that. But please allow me to elaborate.
In 1995, Dr. J. G. Hamilton, a smart man with a no-nonsense name, published a paper on this topic: (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/7636457/). He suggested that the fear of needles has an ancient genetic basis in evolution. Our pre-history ancestors were well aware that sharp cuts or bites could very well be a death sentence. There were no antibiotics; if the wound were to become badly infected, it could kill the injured. There was no healthcare to speak of, save the shaman or medicine man who may try to perform rituals to appease the deity the tribe believed in, as the injured had angered this god, bringing the affliction upon the wounded.
Another evolutionary theory by Stefan Bracha, MD, suggests that one might faint from an injury to demonstrate that a fallen combatant is no threat, and is taken out of the violent melee over the hunting grounds of contention at hand. (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0278584606000091?via%3Dihub) You know, I’m still not really sure if possums actually do that. But I digress. Possums are cool.
The truth is, however, you really don’t need to go that far back in our evolutionary history to paint a simple picture of a grown adult’s fear of needles. All of us, when we were toddlers, received several vaccines. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a schedule that healthcare providers follow:
This itinerary is only to 6 years. There are several vaccinations and inoculations after that, and many into adulthood. Many of the diseases listed in this chart have been all but eradicated due to immunizations. However, healthcare deeply respects patient autonomy. There are many parents out there who, for whatever reason, distrust vaccines (anti-vaxxers is the pejorative term) and refuse to get their children vaccinated, because there is a 0.000007% chance the vaccine will cause their child to grow a second head. On a serious note, this philosophy is why measles and mumps have not been completely eradicated, and, sadly, it is often the children who suffer and die.
But regarding a young child getting their shots: I posit a train of thought, a somewhat obvious one, that if one follows, it is quite easy to see why many of us hate needles. You are probably familiar with psychologist Erik Erikson’s eight stages of human development. Of course, unless you are a Scientologist, there is no perfect model for human psychology. Nevertheless, Erikson’s model has been studied and reworked by various schools of human development and psychology. Marysville Universtiy has a great article on this model, as well as others: (https://online.maryville.edu/online-bachelors-degrees/human-development-and-family-studies/stages-of-human-development/). In a healthy environment, trust and autonomy will foster in the growing human in the formative years. These healthy traits are directly opposed at the Doctor’s office.
When we are infants, toddlers, we are coddled, fussed over, and, in a healthy and nurturing environment, we are loved. Our needs are met. We have no responsibilities. Or course, there is discipline and punishment when we don’t get our way, but; again, in a healthy environment, this is for our protection. But. eventually, we are taken to the Doctor. Toddlers in particular, at some level, understand these visits, as much as they are places of potential pain.
When we are administered the vaccinations above, we certainly do not have the mental capacity to understand why we are being hurt by the scary man in scrubs. We are restrained, which is terror enough. Then, a sharp blast of pain appears on the body, usually, in the case of a toddler, on the thigh. This can be quite the traumatic experience for the youngster. I was holding down the legs of a 3 year-old once, while another Medical Assistant was giving him his shot. The young man was quite vocal in his opposition to all this. He really filled the room. And I tell you, a tiny human like that can really summon precocious strength. I didn’t like it, but I really had to hold him down. Generally, the parents are off to the side, although some assist in restraining the child, and all of them usually say things like: “It’s okay sweetie. You’re doing fine.” In the child’s head, nothing is okay, and nothing is fine. These are our formative years. We remember these events, at some level of consciousness. It is quite easy to see, then, why we carry this fear of Doctors, and specifically needles, well into adulthood.
There is a physiological process behind all of this. Most of us are familiar with the concept of fight or flight. This human (and animal) phenomenon is older than the theories of ancient man outlined above. It is ingrained into the very survival instinct off all human beings. It has been with us since we first banged the rocks together, and it continues today, when we go to the Doctor to get poked with a needle.
You have a nervous system, commanded by your brain. The nervous system carries out commands to different parts of your body to tell them what to go do with themselves. The main nervous system, the central nervous system, is divided into several sub-systems. The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for resting the body when you are relaxed, resting, or feeding. The sympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, ramps your body up when danger is perceived, kicking in the fight or flight reflex. Our ancient ancestors had to do things like run from bears (this would the ‘flight’ portion of fight or flight). When this system kicks in, blood and oxygen and sent to the lungs, and the body is filled with adrenalin, to prepare ourselves to get the hell out of there. This reflex is with us today, although it can be associated with actual, physical danger (car crash, mean dog, airplane turbulence) or societal danger (the boss wants to see you, the principal called, collections just sent you a letter). When this happens, and one is expected to hold still, sitting in the phlebotomist’s chair, blood and oxygen leave the brain, our thinking becomes clouded, and many people either have an intense reaction of fear, or, even the big tough guys, experience vasovagal syncope, a fancy term for passing out. I’ve seen it happen.
But you know, the bottom line is this: it could be a lot worse. Depending on the skill of the healthcare provider, and the type of injection, getting a shot in the shoulder or getting a needle in the arm for a blood draw is pretty low on the pain scale. Needles today are designed to cause as little pain and discomfort as possible.
This is a fantastic article: (https://medicine.uq.edu.au/blog/2018/12/history-syringes-and-needles) The first needles were used in the second century, CE, with disastrous results, and by that I mean fatal. It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that modern needles began to take shape. But I don’t imagine those needles were all that easy to take, let alone sanitary.
Let me wrap it up this way: Have you ever been stung by a bee? That hurts! That’s because it’s designed to hurt. All of us have jabbed one our fingers with a staple before. That hurts! Those are things that are piercing our flesh. Modern needle design, with the hypodermic wielded by a skilled healthcare practitioner, really: Does. Not. Hurt. Sure, it stings a little, but it’s over in a few seconds, your arm may be a little sore afterwards, but trust me, you are probably going to be okay. When I am practicing in a clinic, I am forbidden from giving any kind of assurances, but here on this blog, I’m pretty sure you’re going to survive your shot.
Most of the injections I give are either in the shoulder, the thigh, or, rarely, the back of the upper arm. I occasionally give small injections on the inside of your forearm. Once in a while, the buttocks. I know what I’m doing. There are tips are tricks that I paid a lot of tuition money to learn. I’ll make it east on you. But, not to scare you, there is the occasional injection, rarely given, that are handled by Registered Nurses or Doctors: intraosseous, into the bone. Intrathecal: into the spine. Intracerebral: into the brain. These all sound fun, right? But these are rare, and are administered carefully and with anesthesia by a highly skilled practitioner. There is also, of course, an amniocentesis, which expectant mothers may be familiar with. But there is also cardiocentesis, when a needle punctures the heart. These are just a bit above my paygrade.
So the bottom line is: it’s perfectly okay to be afraid of needles, but it really doesn’t hurt too bad. On the second day of my externship, I have to give a vaccine to a 7 year-old child. She was frightened, scared, and crying. I did not patronize her; I told her it would hurt a tiny bit for just a few seconds, that it was okay to be scared, it was okay to cry, and it would be over quickly. She relaxed a bit. As soon as I injected her, she immediately perked up. “Oh!” she said. “That really doesn’t hurt too bad!” I happily affirmed her, was done in a couple seconds, and withdrew the needle. My mentor said she had never seen a reaction like that from a child. So, I know that needles are scary, and that’s perfectly okay to feel that way, but just remember that 7 year-old girl.
I’ve gotten very good at assessing what kind of patient I have, very quickly. Sometimes, if someone has a healthy outlook on life, but, I can tell, is afraid of injections, I usually try to lighten the mood with a few jokes:
“Well, let’s give this a shot.” “It’s okay not to look; I don’t either.” “I promise you, this won’t hurt me a bit.” “Present: arms!” “Oh… no wonder… that’s the wrong end of the needle…” I’ve got pages of these!
There is one final note to end on, something I neglected to mention. The Dentist. The Dentist uses needles, too. Your gums are much thicker than skin, so the Dentist uses a larger needle. The nonvaccine is very thick, so the needle must remain in gum for a longer time. The Dentist enjoys this. The Dentist is evil. The Dentist enjoys hurting you. The next time you go to the Dentist, bring your holy water, and banish the Dentist back to which they came. I kid! I’ve had some great dentists.
Remember: it doesn’t hurt that bad. Be like that 7 year-old girl! I’ll see you at the clinic!