Needle phobia: a neglected diagnosis
Needle phobia is a recently defined medical condition that affects at least 10% of the population. Because persons with needle phobia typically avoid medical care, this condition is a significant impediment in the health care system. The etiology of needle phobia lies in an inherited vasovagal reflex of shock, triggered by needle puncture. Those who inherit this reflex often learn to fear needles through successive needle exposure. Needle phobia is therefore both inherited and learned.
In a family practice, needle phobia can be managed by reassurance and education, avoidance of needles, postural and muscle tension techniques, benzodiazepines, nitrous oxide gas, and topical anesthesia applied by iontophoresis.
Key words. Needle phobia; phobic disorders; needles; vasovagal reflex; syncope; vasovagal syncope; iontophoresis. (J Fam Pract 1995; 41:169-175)
Needle phobia is a condition that has become an increasingly important issue in medicine because of the modern reliance on injections and blood testing. Contrary to popular belief, needle phobia is not confined to children, is not an emotion-driven or transient phenomenon, and is not a rare condition. Clinicians need to be aware of needle phobia because it is a common condition and because needle-phobic persons tend to avoid medical treatment, which can lead to serious health problems as well as social and legal problems.
Needle phobia has been defined as a formal medical condition(1)(2) and has recently been included in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM-IV) within the diagnostic category of Blood-Injection-Injury Phobia.(3) A review of the background medical literature and suggestions for management of needle phobia are presented here.
The etiology of needle phobia is rooted in an inherited vasovagal reflex that causes shock with needle puncture. With repeated needle exposure, those with an inherited vasovagal shock reflex tend to develop a fear of needles. Unlike most other phobias, in which exposure to the feared object excites tachycardia, victims of needle phobia typically experience a temporary anticipatory tachycardia and hypertension, which on needle insertion turns into bradycardia and hypotension (Figure), accompanied by pallor, diaphoresis, tinnitus, syncope or near-syncope, and sometimes asystole or death.(1)
According to the DSM-IV, a phobia is defined by the presence of fear and by avoidance behavior.(3) The symptom of avoidance of needles, doctors, dentists, etc, is central to the definition of needle phobia, since avoidance of health care is surely a health care problem. However, because needle phobia is also accompanied by numerous physiological changes in blood pressure, pulse, electrocardiogram (ECG) waveforms, and stress hormone levels,(1)(2) these measurements can also be used to define this condition (Table 1). While a dislike or mild fear of needles is very common, needle phobia can be more rigorously defined by objective clinical findings in addition to subjective symptoms.
Table 1. The Primary Factors Underlying the Recognition and Diagnosis of
Past medical history(*)
(1) Self-report by the patient of a long-term needle fear, usually from childhood, that the patient recognizes as unreasonable.
(2) Exposure to or anticipation of a needle procedure invariably triggers immediate...