Managing Needle Phobia

I used to love the show “Fear Factor.” Joe Rogan was a perfect host choice for this stimulating and disgusting show.  I was so turned off, yet I tuned in to watch the gross concoctions of blended bugs and maggots that contestants would drink for a CHANCE at winning $50,000.  I used to sit in my comfy chair, red wine in hand and wonder if I could do it.  Would I drink that stuff, would I sit in a bed of snakes, would I try to escape from a submerged car? The odds weren’t in my favor of ever winning, it seemed like the show would make sure of that, so I enjoyed the show from the A/C with my bug free dinner, usually mentally forfeiting after round 1.  Of all the stunts they pulled on that show the one I could not bare to watch was the highlighting of the needle phobia or trypanophobia.  

Thankfully, over the years, I have learned several ways to get the benefits of needles and the medical care I need while maintaining my fear.

I have a huge and deep fear of needles.  Just ask my mom, family, friends, or certainly any medical professional that has had to either administer a needle to me or figure out a way to get me better without sticking me. Writing this blog, I was researching the official name of needle phobia.  I thought surely this phobia ranked higher on the charts than it did.  While roughly 20% of Americans do suffer from needle phobia, fears of chickens, dogs, flying, and holes(??) rank higher according to I don’t necessarily love holes but I am not scared of them and those other things actually bring me a good amount of joy. A women’s health article just listed the top 10 phobias in 2016 and needles didn’t even make the list:

This is confusing to me personally because it's my #1 phobia and seems to me that a lot of people that I come in contact with feel similarly.  Maybe they just want to make me feel better? I have been known to make quite a spectacle when needles are involved! Definitely not something I am proud of. I am pretty embarrassed to admit that I have had to be held down in a hospital by nurses and my mother to get my blood drawn well into my adulthood.  All people involved were distraught - not just me. By “involved,” I am also referring to the people in the waiting room because it probably scared them too. Professionals have been known to jockey out of position when my chart is pulled. I have been this way since I was a child.  I thought when I was older (like 15) I would get over it but no, the fear is still going strong.  Thankfully, over the years, I have learned several ways to get the benefits of needles and the medical care I need while maintaining my fear.

Receiving IV nutritional therapy

A true needle phobic will avoid medical care altogether for fear of the dreaded chance that they might require a blood draw or shot. This was my strategy but my time ran out. I was diagnosed with cancer and was told - you will sit for 8 hours at a time receiving intravenous chemotherapy. The side effects from chemo required me to get daily shots to maintain my chemo regime (veering off schedule is a sure recipe for not getting rid of the disease). The surgeries I would need would all require needles. Check-ups for cancer reoccurrences would require more than 15 PET scans over time (more needles).  Later, I would get an arthritic condition that ravaged my body to the point of almost total immobilization.  I knew that acupuncture (needles) would greatly help with my pain and inflammation.  IV nutrition would help a host of side effects I was battling, including a neurological disorder. Not to mention the countless amount of times that I would need blood draws, scans with contrast, blood sugar tests, bone marrow biopsies, blood transfusions, a port being accessed, shots for nutrition when my stomach couldn’t process it - needles, needles and more needles!  I wanted to help myself.  I knew on a deep and spiritual level that these conditions were all a chance for me to face my fear.  But how? These things were coming at me fast, they were repetitive, and they all carried serious implications for turning away and not dealing with it.

To start, I just began asking for help.  I had the most amazing nurses that showed up for me and helped me.  They could see my body’s visceral reaction to the simple thought of the needle. My chemo nurses treated me with the utmost patience and kindness.  They made accommodations for me that calmed me down and allowed me to trust them. Simple extras like icing my arms or trying new spots to stick me that hadn’t been used yet made a huge difference. My parents were right by my side to advocate for me when I was too tired or worn out to stand up for myself.  My former husband famously “took me on a trip around Maui” while nurses administered my sedation for a neck biopsy surgery.  Another amazing friend made sure to personally call the anesthesia team and tell them about my worries, and when I arrived the whole team handled me with kid gloves from start to finish.

Getting ready for shoulder surgery with Emula on my hand

Early on, I learned about a numbing cream - Emula that is used with pediatric patients.  I had friends that were nurses and would bring me the cream.  I still carry it around in my purse at all times and I know it is just a phone call away when I run out.  I have been known to walk into the hospital with the Emula lathered on all spots where I could possibly and potentially need an IV.  I get a few snickers from the staff but not if I need it.  It is necessary to be proactive! Doctors (Dr. Heim) will add extra lidocaine for me in an IV drip in case the medicine will burn causing me to literally freak out. And all practitioners on my team will make accommodations for me when/where acupuncture is a suggestion for healing.  My heart is overwhelmed with gratitude at the thought of all of these wonderful and amazing people and healers.

If you have a needle phobia or know someone that does, it’s important to:

#1 Speak up for yourself and if you have staff around you that is not accommodating, know you can go to another clinic, doctor’s office, or ask for someone else to help you.  Be an advocate for yourself! There are many benefits and needs for going to the doctor. Do not let your health suffer because of your fear.

#2 There are many complementary therapies that increase health and vitality, and are helpful in avoiding major health conditions and diseases like I had.  Acupuncture is a common Eastern and well accepted Western practice for pain, inflammation, stress, fertility, chronic fatigue, nausea, headaches, depression, anxiety…the list goes on.  This is a method that works and is beneficial for many and if you need it but you are scared of needles, know that there are alternatives. 

Here are some alternatives I have tried:

Ear Seeds - Better known as Auriculotherapy.  This is a pain free, needle free stimulation of specific points on the ear, which is believed to be a microsystem of the entire body. These seeds look like tiny Band-Aids that are placed on points that your acupuncturists will locate for you based on your needs.  When you press on them during the length of their stay on your ear (for me it was typically two weeks) it activates the channels that need opening while also giving you a mini finger massage which also has health benefits. These were a standard accessory for me for years at Elements Wellness in Tampa, Florida and I am grateful to the staff there for helping me through my phobia.

More on this:

Reiki - This is a Japanese technique for stress reduction and relaxation that also promotes healing.  It is administered by "laying on hands" and is based on the idea that an unseen "energy" flows through us. If one's "energy" is low, then we are more likely to get sick or feel stress, and if it is high, we are more capable of being happy and healthy. Using this technique and being able to administer it to others was and has been greatly beneficial to me for issues of pain, inflammation and stress reduction.

Here are some amazing stories about how Reiki has helped heal various ailments and conditions including cancer:

Reflexology - This is the use of pressure to specific points and areas on the feet, hands, or ears. Reflexologists believe that these areas and reflex points correspond to different body organs and systems, and that pressing them has a beneficial effect on the organs and person's general health. This is one of my favorite modalities for pain and stagnate body organs, such as digestion.  It has been known to be very helpful to stimulate child labor and I recently talked my sister into going with me to a few reflexology treatments during her last weeks of pregnancy. If you’re in Tampa, I would highly recommend The Foot Whisperer Reflexology Institute, where I have received treatment for many years. Reflexology is a common treatment and complement to many health conditions. 

Acupressure - This technique can be used or will be used in massage. This uses the same pressure points and meridians as acupuncture without the use of needles.  Acupressure uses gentle to firm finger pressure. When these acupressure points are stimulated, they release muscular tension, promote circulation of blood, and enhance the body's life force energy to aid healing. Acupressure therapy can be used to relieve pain, help with infertility, detoxify the body for greater health and beauty, and tone facial and back muscles, nearly all the same benefits as acupuncture.  The biggest pro with this modality is you can do it to yourself.  Check out these guided tips on WedMD:

Cupping - Cupping is like a very deep tissue massage. The practitioner applies heat in a cup and then applies that cup to the body, most commonly on the back. The heat creates a vacuum effect and draws the skin up into the cup. It feels odd but it’s not painful at all. The result is a movement of fresh blood to the area, release of toxins, acupuncture point stimulation, increased circulation of blood and lymph, relaxation of tight muscles, and reduced inflammation. Plenty of A-list stars were known to walk around with cupping “bruises” when this first came out as a popular regime. I like this option a lot because it has fast results and in some odd way I like seeing the marks left behind!  I feel like I know toxins and inflammation have been removed from my body. Although this could could be a downside for others.

Gwyneth Paltrow after cupping treatment

Michael Phelps competing after cupping treatment

Moxibustion - Last but definitely not least is this new-to-me interesting and effective alternative to acupuncture. I needed help recently with inflammation and I went to see my acupuncturist, Sesame Rasa Unlu at Maui Health and Wellness – whom I would recommend to anyone if you happen to be on the islands! Agreeing that I needed some help and knowing I don’t like needles, Sesame suggested Moxibustion.

Moxibustion evolved thousands of years ago in early northern China. It is part of traditional Chinese medical practices and came about at the same time as acupuncture. It involves the burning of moxa, an herbal wool made from the leaves of the Mugwort plant, over specific acupoints. The moxa is often formed into a small cone and placed on the tip of a needle or rolled into a cigar-like shape and passed over the skin in wave-like motions. The radiant heat produced by moxibustion penetrates deeply into the body to restore balance, promote circulation, and reduce pain.

This treatment does involve some heat and vulnerability to the patient.  I was lying face down with what felt like fire really close to my bare body. Make sure you go to someone that is knowledgeable and trustworthy.  Apparently, this treatment didn’t take off in the States like acupuncture did due to the smoky effects of the treatment. I can speak from very recent experience and say this worked like a charm.  My wrist pain was nearly gone the next day and 100% unnoticeable within 36 hours. 

For more on this super cool (I mean hot!) treatment, you can learn more here and see if it’s something you would like to try:

Remember, with any treatment or procedure, there may be an alternative that works better for you. Take the time to research and ask your medical professionals before moving forward with something that doesn’t feel right for your body.