Trypanophobia

Medically reviewed by Timothy J. Legg, PhD, PsyD, CRNP, ACRN, CPH on October 20, 2017Written by Erica Cirino on October 20, 2017

What is trypanophobia?

Trypanophobia is an extreme fear of medical procedures involving injections or hypodermic needles.

Children are especially afraid of needles because they’re unused to the sensation of their skin being pricked by something sharp. By the time most people reach adulthood, they can tolerate needles much more easily.

But for some, a fear of needles stays with them into adulthood. Sometimes this fear can be extremely intense.

What causes people to develop trypanophobia?

Doctors aren’t exactly sure why some people develop phobias and others don’t. Certain factors that lead to development of this phobia include:

  • negative life experiences or previous trauma brought on by a specific object or situation
  • relatives who’ve had phobias (which may be suggesting genetic or learned behavior)
  • changes in brain chemistry
  • childhood phobias that have appeared by age 10
  • a sensitive, inhibitive, or negative temperament
  • learning about negative information or experiences

In the case of trypanophobia, certain aspects of needles often cause the phobia. This may include:

  • fainting or severe dizziness as a result of having a vasovagal reflex reaction when pricked by a needle
  • bad memories and anxiety, such as memories of painful injections, that can be triggered by the sight of a needle
  • medically related fears or hypochondria
  • sensitivity to pain, which tends to be genetic and causes high anxiety, blood pressure, or heart rate during medical procedures involving a needle
  • a fear of restraint, which can be confused with trypanophobia because many people receiving injections are restrained

What are the symptoms of trypanophobia?

The symptoms of trypanophobia can greatly interfere with a person’s quality of life. These symptoms can be so intense that they can be debilitating. Symptoms are present when a person sees needles or is told they will have to undergo a procedure that involves needles. Symptoms include:

  • dizziness
  • fainting
  • anxiety
  • insomnia
  • panic attacks
  • high blood pressure
  • racing heart rate
  • feeling emotionally or physically violent
  • avoiding or running away from medical care

How is trypanophobia diagnosed?

An extreme fear of needles can interfere with your doctor’s ability to treat you. So it’s important to get this phobia treated.

Your doctor will first rule out any physical illness by performing a medical exam. Then they may recommend that you see a mental health care specialist. The specialist will ask you questions about your mental and physical health histories. They will also ask you to describe your symptoms.

A diagnosis of trypanophobia is usually made if a fear of needles has interfered in some part of your life.

What are the complications of trypanophobia?

Trypanophobia could result in stressful episodes that may or may not involve panic attacks. It may also lead to a delay in necessary medical treatment. This could hurt you if you have a chronic condition or experience a medical emergency.

How is trypanophobia treated?

The goal of treatment for trypanophobia is to address the underlying cause of your phobia. So your treatment may be different from someone else’s.

Most people with trypanophobia are recommended some kind of psychotherapy as their treatment. This could include:

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This involves exploring your fear of needles in therapy sessions and learning techniques to cope with it. Your therapist will help you learn different ways to think about your fears and how they affect you. In the end, you should walk away feeling a confidence or mastery over your thoughts and feelings.

Exposure therapy. This is similar to CBT in that it’s focused on changing your mental and physical response to your fear of needles. Your therapist will expose you to needles and the related thoughts they trigger. For example, your therapist might first show you photos of a needle. They might next have you stand next to a needle, hold a needle, and then perhaps imagine getting injected with a needle.

Medication is necessary when a person is so stressed that they’re unreceptive to psychotherapy. Antianxiety and sedative medications can relax your body and brain enough to reduce your symptoms. Medications can also be used during a blood test or vaccination, if it helps to reduce your stress.

What is the outlook for trypanophobia?

The key to managing your trypanophobia is to address its underlying causes. Once you’ve identified what makes you afraid of needles, it’s important to stick to your treatment plan. You may never get over your fear of needles, but at the very least you can learn to live with it.

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