Why do I have an extreme fear of needles?
Also in this week's column:
- Does TV watching in childhood trigger autism?
- Is it true that fewer boy babies are born in hard times?
Why do I have an extreme fear of needles?
Asked by Nicole Rothman of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
Belonephobia is the extreme fear of needles. If you have this, you fear getting medications via injections, vaccinations, even testing your blood. You are probably terrified of the prospect of having surgery performed on you. You may even have great difficulty going to the dentist because of what the dentist may do to your teeth and gums with needles.
Belonephobia is surprisingly common. Up to 10 per cent of people suffer from some degree of belonephobia. This is according to Dr Louisa Yim, a general practitioner from Wantirna, Victoria, Australia. Dr Yim also writes in the Australian Family Physician (August 2006) of a skin cancer patient who needed minor surgery, but the patient was belonephobic and so avoided getting the skin cancer removed. The skin cancer doubled in size.
Pregnancy poses great problems for a belonephobic since so many antepartum, intrapartum, and postpartum medical procedures involve needles. This is according to a team of five researchers from the School of Nursing at Western Michigan University led by Dr K Searing. They describe in the Journal of Obsteric, Gynecologic and Neonatal Nursing (September-October 2006) the case of a 21-year-old woman who faced great difficulties dealing with both her pregnancy and her belonephobia.
One of the more interesting theories as to why people develop belonephobia was put forward by Dr J G Hamilton of the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Keele in Staffordshire, UK. Dr Hamilton writes in the Journal of Family Practice (August 1995) that the cause of belonephobia "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".
Thus, belonephobia is both inherited and learned. Belonephobia often appears with both dental phobia and blood phobia (hematophobia). Belonephobia is from the Greek word "belone" which means "needle" - makes sense. The point's been made.
Belonephobics face difficulties in many realms of life. For example, while driving and when stopped for suspected DUI, a driver may have to undergo a blood test. According to Drs M M Stark and N Brener of the Forensic Medicine Unit at the St George Hospital Medical School in London, writing in the Journal of Clinical Forensic Medicine (March, 2000), courts are unlikely to allow belonephobia as legal grounds for refusing the blood test.
Stephen Juan, Ph.D. is an anthropologist at the University of Sydney. Email your Odd Body questions to firstname.lastname@example.org
Causes of phobias
Belonephobia is a "simple" or "specific" phobia, as opposed to the more complex social phobias (agoraphobia is usually clinically considered to be in a category by itself).
It's not always easy to pinpoint the cause of a simple phobia, but most are learned reactions from those close to us, and the chances are that if you suffer from belonephobia then someone else in your family does too. Depending on which sources you credit, somewhere between 10 and 20 per cent of the population* suffer from belonephobia, and up to 80 per cent of those report that they have a parent or sibling with the same condition.** Of course different people suffer from differing degrees of fear, ranging from "avoid needles wherever possible" to "full-on panic attack and possibly passing out at the mere sight of them".
Those most at risk of developing the condition are individuals who previously had a traumatic experience with needles (for instance, a child remembering an unpleasant vaccination or visit to the dentist) and those who have extreme sensitivity to pain.
Like almost any other specific phobia, your fear of needles may stem from a combination of factors. Many people who have a strong aversion to pain come to associate it specifically with a particular event, and most of us come into contact with needles - which, lets face it, look like they're going to hurt - at several times in our lives. This could be particularly true if, as a child, whoever took you to see the doctor or dentist themselves exhibited symptoms of anxiety about the needle: simply being made too much of a fuss of could be the basis for the problem!
An uncomfortable filling or tooth extraction starts with a needle and so it's an obvious focus for fear. Needles figure as a strong motif in horror books and films, which only serves to reinforce the message that Needles Are Scary.
In terms of dealing with the condition when you need to confront a needle for some reason, any combination of counselling, cognitive behavioural therapy, hypnosis, distraction and relaxation techniques can be employed. If the fear is severe and disabling, it is possible that benzodiazepines - mild sedatives - could be prescribed for short-term use in their capacity as anti-anxiety medications. These are however contraindicated for long-term use as susceptible patients can develop both psychological and physiological dependencies.
Was that any use, Nicole?
*To be fair, the only source I found for the higher figure quoted is Dr. James G. Hamilton, who is himself a belonephobia sufferer. Make of that what you will, but most sources quote around 10 per cent.
**I'm aware that this is purely anecdotal, but it's in a in similar vein. When I was a young child I used to regularly catch spiders in my hands and play with them. One day my Mum came across me in the garden having a conversation with a big fat spider in the palm of my hand, sending her into near-hysterical panic when I proudly introduced her to my leggy friend. Nowadays I go absolutely nuts if I see a spider scuttling across the room and won't willingly get close to one. I'm fascinated by spider biology but have been known to close a book in horror at an unexpected full-page closeup of a spider... Go figure. There's no particularly clinical distinction between arachnophobia and belonephobia; the fear is just as irrational and just as specific, it's just the object that's different!
As usual, short on answers and long on rephrasing the question.