Medical Microfiction: Trypanophobia


In dark alleys and back rooms, in bars and clubs, the kids have invented a new thrill. They’re lining up for miles to experience the rush.

The ritual goes like this. There’s a man with a needle. The silvery point hovers in the air, just over a bulging blue vein. The audience stands at attention, hushed. The needle touches skin. It digs in. The onlookers feel it: a rush of chills, a tingling, bells in the ears and clouded eyes. Knees buckle, breath releases, and they’re out cold.

They’re not looking for a chemical high. They’re seeking their own terror.


Fear of needles
Fear of needles (Photo credit: david anderson : da-photography)

In the past, I’ve written about using what your body already produces to save lives. There’s always a demand for blood and bone marrow donations, which save lives in a way so straightforward that I feel no embarrassment in using the cliche. Such activities are easy, international, and cost you nothing.

I talk about this stuff a lot because I hope by getting the word out, a few more people might consider giving it a shot. Recently, a friend pointed out a problem with my advocacy: some people refrain from donating blood or joining the marrow registry because they suffer from a paralyzing phobia that renders it impossible.

Trypanophobia, or the fear of needles, is quite widespread in the populace. In the United States, roughly 1 in 10 people suffers from this phobia. Unlike many other phobias, the most common type of trypanophobia induces a physical response that can lead to wooziness and fainting. To put it another way, if you’re afraid of spiders and you see one in your shower, you’ll startle and try to squish it or run away. If you’re afraid of needles, your vasovagal syncope will kick in and you may pass out if you see or even think about needles.

മലയാളം: വെള്ളിലത്തോഴി എന്ന ശലഭം
This was going to be a close-up of a needle, but I decided to be nice. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What on earth is “vasovagal syncope”? If you’ve ever jumped out of bed after a hard sleep and found yourself feeling a little dizzy, then you’ve experienced it yourself. Your heart rate fails to provide enough blood to your brain, so you feel weird and woozy until your heart catches up.

People with trypanophobia can experience this reflex just from thinking about needles. So what’s a needle-phobic person to do? Fortunately, there are some ways to deal with it. Doctors can numb the area with different anesthetics before they use the needle. They can also make use of some of the new needle-less drug injection methods, which are very cool indeed. A third option is behavioral therapy, which aims to desensitize you to the stimulus through gradual exposure. Trypanophobics can also take anti-anxiety medications which help prevent the sudden drop in blood pressure.

All this talk of phobias makes me think of horror movies, and how we watch them even though they scare us. Or because they scare us. Thus, today’s story: where teenage trypanophobics deliberately seek out vasovagal syncope just for kicks. It’s no dumber than huffing aerosol from a plastic bag, and probably a good deal safer!

Are you afraid of needles? What tips or tricks do you use to deal with it?

6 thoughts on “Medical Microfiction: Trypanophobia

  1. I’m not afraid of needles but I am “afraid” of blood. More so I just am disgusted with blood, especially if it’s my own. Even when they tie your arm off and tap at the vein, it makes me shudder. Then the sound when it pops into the vein… Ugh. I just stare at the wall and read whatever is hanging there to distract myself. Have yet to pass out, though I do apparently look extra pale when I leave.

    I was listening to the radio today though and they were talking about a recent study that showed that people with the fear of needles did a lot better if they listened to music while getting the shot. So kids afraid of needles just pop in some ear buds and barely felt the shot. Seems like a good tactic.

    1. Huh, the music thing is a great tip. I’ll pass that one along!

      Interesting that you mention blood-phobia. Trypanophobia’s actually part of a whole family called the “blood-injection-injury type” phobias which are very common. It makes 100% sense to me; after all, seeing your own blood usually means that something is very wrong! I think it’s a healthy fear, personally. 🙂

  2. Even though I guess I’m not actually afraid of needles, I still have a very childish primal sort of reaction to shots.

    Recently I had to get an injection near my hip after a wasp bite…And I’m ashamed to say that I screamed like a baby even though it didn’t hurt much. And then I limped like a wounded soldier all day, looking like a martyr.

  3. This really bothers me. I am TRUE Trypanophobic- since age 3 when I under the word “inoculate”. This phobia is not about pain. Ive been suffering through nerve exposure from broken teeth-and that is far worse than any needle. The phobia that is Trypanophobia-is a lot more complex than “fear of needles” We die from curable diseases- we are hard to find because we avoid ALL medical professionals -with the exception of Therapy. If someone says ” my daughter / son inherited Trypanophobia from me”..I stop them right their and say-if you gave birth- you are not trypanophobic. We dont do ANYTHING that will require needles or surgery-that includes having babies. When my and net go live- I will clear this misconception up. I’m not a doctor- but I am a person that is a true Trypanophobic in every sense. I am in no way minimizing Needle phobias -they are just as bad but they can be managed in a variety of ways.- but they are afraid of the pain. We are not. Oral sedatives do not work on us- if our eyes are open-you will not get near us with a needle. If my doctor finds a lump during a routine check-up, I will not have a biopsy done or take any steps to have it treated -because I will avoid ALL medical treatment. If you can say the same- then you are part of the 10% that truly suffers from this awful phobia.

    1. This was a really insightful comment – thank you for taking the time to share your experience. One of my favorite parts of writing this blog is getting to speak with people who know more about this stuff firsthand. Educational and horizon-expanding for this humble little speech therapist-in-training. It sounds like there is a much wider spectrum for needle phobias than I ever knew. Do you happen to know if the term “trypanophobia” is reserved for the most extreme state (which is what you experience) or if it’s an umbrella term covering the whole spectrum?

      Anyway, once again, a huge thank-you for sharing. 🙂

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