Needles are an essential tool for people who rely on insulin, but sometimes they can be a little unnerving. After all, it’s your body’s natural instinct to protect itself from harm. Being a little squeamish is perfectly normal, but it is essential that you overcome this anxiety in order to successfully manage your diabetes. We talked with Joslin diabetes educator Erin Kelly RN, BSN, CDE, for some tips and tricks for overcoming some common anxieties about using needles.
Insulin Needles Are MUCH Smaller Than Vaccine Needles
For most people, the only interaction they’ve had with needles is to get vaccinations at the doctor’s office. But as Kelly explains, those needles are a lot bigger (both in thickness and in length) than the needles you’ll be using for insulin injections. The difference is vaccines need to go into the muscle deep under your skin while insulin only needs to go one layer down into your fat. “I think most people are kind of surprised by how different it looks from the needles they’re used to,” says Kelly. “We’re trying to get everyone to use a four or five millimeter needle.” That’s about as long as an earring post, and .01 inches thick—about the width of three human hairs. “Even if you’ve used or seen diabetes needles in the past, they’re made much smaller now. They’re only about the quarter of the size they used to be.”
Ask a Diabetes Educator for Help
If someone is having a hard time getting past the initial shock of putting a needle in their skin, they should ask a diabetes educator to help. Sticking yourself with a needle isn’t intuitive, so it often helps to see someone do it first. For most people, once they’ve had that initial injection they realize they can’t even feel it or that it was a lot smaller pinch than they expected. “Experiencing it first makes it easier for them to self inject,” says Kelly.
Use a Pen or Shield to Hide the Needle
If you’re still struggling with self injection there are ways to hide the needle from yourself. Pens that are pre-loaded with insulin can be less nerve wracking than a traditional hypodermic needle. If the pointy end still makes you nervous, there are shields that keep the needle totally out of sight. “Some pen needles have them built in,” says Kelly, “but there’s also one you can snap onto your pen.”
Numb the Area Before an Injection
If injecting gives you discomfort, there are a few methods to numb the area before you inject. One of the simplest ways is to use an ice cube to numb the area. There are also topical anesthetics in gel or cream form that you can rub on the skin (look for the active ingredients lidocaine and prilocaine). If those don’t work, Kelly suggests trying a fun little tool called Buzzy. It’s shaped like a bee or a ladybug and combines an icepack with a gently vibrating body. The vibrations overwhelm the nerve signals being sent to our brain, so the pain sensations are dulled. It’s the same reason shaking your hand after injuring it makes it feel better—there’s too much going on for the body to single out the pain. “Buzzy is usually marketed to kids but anyone can use it,” says Kelly.
To Avoid Bruising, Pick a Fattier Tissue Site
“If you get a bruise, it’s really just bad luck,” says Kelly. She explains that there are very few blood vessels in our fatty tissue. If you do get a bruise, you managed to hit a tiny capillary or a superficial vein. “If you can see your veins, try to avoid places where they are visible,” says Kelly. “Otherwise just picking a fattier tissue site (like the stomach or upper thigh) as opposed to a more muscular site will protect you from bruising.”
To Help a Child Overcome Anxiety, Downplay Their Insulin Injections
Even though insulin injections are really important, the best thing you can do is to not make a big deal about it. The less you build up the situation and carry it out as routine, the easier it will become. Kelly suggests getting everything ready ahead of time so your child doesn’t have to wait and think about the injection. If possible, use a distraction technique like having them sit with a favorite toy or watching a TV show. “I also think the way you frame it is important,” says Kelly. “It’s important to tell them this is something that keeps them healthy as opposed to telling them that they’re sick,” she says. Using these techniques will streamline of the process of caring for your child and help relieve anxiety related to the injection.
Do you have any tips for getting over a fear of needles? Share with us in the comment section below!
For more help overcoming a needle anxiety, or to answer any questions about your diabetes management, contact our Certified Diabetes Educators at 617-309-2780 or make an appointment with our Adult Clinic at 617-309-2440. For questions related to your child’s diabetes, contact our Pediatric Clinic at 617-732-2603.