May 23, 2011 at 9:11 AM ET
Seeing a needle in a medical setting is enough to make even the toughest of us faint.
People who are terrified of needles get the same heart racing, shallow breathing and nerve jangling reactions seen in other intense fears. But the tendency to faint is what sets some medical phobias apart from, say, being petrified of heights or spiders.
"The possibility of fainting is the most pronounced difference. You don't see that very often in other phobias," says Martin Antony, a psychology professor at Ryerson University in Toronto and co-author of the book "Overcoming Medical Phobias."
By one estimate, more than half the people with a full-blown needle phobia and nearly three-quarters of folks with an extreme aversion to blood have a history of passing out in these situations.
A fear of needles and injections may involve the thought, sight, smells surrounding or pain from getting them. It can range from a mild dread to a moderate case of the heebie-jeebies to a full-blown phobia in which people refuse to have their blood drawn or avoid medical care entirely.
As medical phobias go, being afraid of needles or disgusted by them is fairly common.
However, needle-phobes aren't keeling over because they're wimps or scardey-cats. "They've inherited a genetic predisposition to fainting combined with a negative experience that triggers the fear," explains Antony.
A majority of needle-phobes have a parent, sibling or child with the condition, and many have inherited what's called a vasovagal reflex in response to fear. When they see a needle or get a shot, this triggers the vagus nerve, which widens blood vessels, slows heart rate, and drops blood pressure. Ultimately, they may lose consciousness often for a couple of seconds.
Both needle phobia and the vasovagal reflex tend to run in families. But a fear of needles is also brought on by a negative experience in a doctor or dentist's office usually before the age of 10.
What's also tricky about needle phobia is that it can affect your health or be life threatening if needed medical tests, insulin injections, immunizations, surgery or doctor's visits are avoided.
Psychological treatment for needle phobia tends to be brief, but it's also unpleasant because you're exposed to the source of your fear, explains Antony. You might begin by talking about needles with a therapist, then looking at photos of them, and then watching videos of people getting their shots or being hooked up to IVs. Gradually, you work your way up to the real thing.
For those prone to fainting, they are first taught a technique called "applied tension," where they learn to tense the muscles in the body to increase blood pressure and avoid swooning. After practicing and becoming successful at this exercise, they then move on to gradual exposure.
Besides a psychological approach, some needle-phobes seek out pain patches or topical numbing agents before getting a shot or medical procedure. Others turn to tranquilizers, although these drugs may not be a good idea for those who faint.
Have you tried to overcome a fear of needles? What's worked?