Ask the GP: I have a needle phobia and need a blood test – is there anything I can take to help?

There is no need to feel ashamed if you have a needle phobia. Simple exercises and practice can help you to overcome it. Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto© Getty Images/iStockphoto

Jennifer Grant

Question: I’m terrified of needles and especially nervous about getting blood drawn — to the point I feel dizzy/nauseous. I have to go for a blood test soon, and the thought of it is already making me quite stressed — is there anything that works that will ease the pain and fear?

Dr Grant replies: Like so many things in life, this really is mind over matter. To be honest, no one likes needles but some people can rationalise it better than others.

It is estimated that one in 10 people have a needle phobia. Sometimes it stems from a bad early childhood experience with needles. Many people have their first ‘vasovagal collapse’ upon getting their bloods taken for the first time. The fear associated with seeing fresh blood or having blood taken from them can lead to vagus nerve stimulation and a sudden drop in blood pressure.

This is generally a benign condition that in time, and with some simple techniques, most people learn to overcome. Including yours truly.

It’s always a good idea to lie down when getting blood drawn, especially if you are prone to fainting or, in your case, feeling dizzy or nauseous. Elevating the legs for a few seconds when lying flat can help prevent fainting by increasing the blood flow back to the heart and brain.

Be sure to let the phlebotomist (person taking your blood) know you have a needle phobia, and they can distract you by talking about other things. Look away and close your eyes. Try to recall a happy place or time in your life and imagine you are back there again. Once the needle is out, you can breathe a sigh of relief and feel proud that you did it.

Applied muscle tension is a technique used to bring your blood pressure back to normal if you are prone to feeling faint or have low blood pressure.

Firstly, sit down and get into a comfortable position. Tense the muscles in your arms, legs and torso/abdomen. Try to hold the tension for 10-15 seconds until you feel the warmth in your face, then slowly release the tension. Repeat up to five times after 30 seconds of rest.

Deep breathing exercises can help stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system and would be a good idea to do while sitting in the waiting room before your blood test.

Once again, sit in a comfortable position, with your back upright and let your shoulders and jaw relax. Place one hand over your upper abdomen to ensure it moves during deep breathing techniques. Take a long, slow, deep inhalation for seven seconds through your nose, and exhale through your mouth for 11 seconds. Repeat five times. Both of these techniques should be practised twice daily for a few weeks.

Unfortunately, the key to getting over a needle phobia is being exposed to it. Another commonly used technique is graded exposure. This involves creating your own ladder with a list of scenarios that cause you distress in terms of needles.

For example, the first step might be to look at a picture of a needle, the second to watch a video of a needle being held, the third to touch and feel a real needle, the fourth to use the needle with an orange, the fifth to watch a video of someone getting blood drawn and lastly to allow a phlebotomist to take your own blood.

In children, a topical anaesthetic numbing cream is usually applied to the skin a few minutes before, in order to reduce the initial pain as the needle crosses the epidermis. You could ask the phlebotomist to apply this cream for you, a few minutes in advance of your blood draw. Ultimately, you should be aiming to overcome this phobia without needing a numbing cream.

Dr Jennifer Grant is a GP with Beacon HealthCheck