It’s inevitable. If you have a chronic illness, sooner or later you encounter needles. Needles serve many purposes and come in a whole variety of sizes. For example, there is the needle used to numb skin and gums which seems to pack a lot of pain for its tiny size. Or the needle used for a spinal tap, one so big even people who aren’t having the procedure wince when they see it. And one can’t mention the subject of needles without paying homage to those used for bloodwork.
I’ve had so many needles in my life so far white scar dots adorn my wrists, the backs of my hands, and my arms. I’ve also found needles can go practically anywhere; thighs, butt, hands, arms, foreheads, necks, chests, stomachs – even ears. I learned that one the hard way.
Needles are a constant in my life and I’ve learned to deal with them out of necessity. While some needles were easier to get used to than others, (my parents still tease me about my legendary flu shot tantrums) lately I’ve found the hard work I put into handling needles is getting harder and harder to maintain. And the reason is one I hear again and again from the multiple technicians, nurses and doctors who have attempted to pierce my body with yet another needle; my veins are scarred.
How aggravating that on top of dealing with the many needles needed to either monitor or treat my illness, I now have to deal with the fact my veins themselves are tired and difficult to get into. As needle connoisseurs will tell you, there is nothing more ‘fun’ than when the technicians puts the needle in your arm but misses the vein and moves the needle around to try and find it.
Still, when it comes to needles, even when it really hurts, I pride myself on not crying. When I do cry, it’s usually because I just can’t hold in the pain anymore. Currently, the only needles which have a chance to make me cry are my heparin shots, mostly because the thought of putting them in myself makes me cry, and IV needles, because they’re very difficult to get in my veins now.
So when a bloodwork technician who never had her hands on my veins before treated me as if I never had bloodwork before when I started crying from pain as soon as the needle went in, I was greatly insulted. I found out later she hit a nerve in my arm with her needle, and my arm was sore for two weeks after. I definitely wasn’t crying because the pain of needles was new to me.
Part of my needle coping strategies in the past have involved being as compliant as possible. However, as I now realize, even my veins are protesting. And if they are, why can’t I?
Perhaps needles are an uncontrollable fact of life for someone dealing with chronic illness, but the rules surrounding them are not. For example, I know it is harder to get a needle in my left arm than my right. Thus, when I’m having a tough day already or I don’t know the person who is trying to put in the needle, I offer my right arm up for puncture because I know it is easier to get into.
Also, I find smaller needles (aka butterfly needles) meet less resistance. Sometimes when I have bloodwork the use of a butterfly needle might mean tubes fill more slowly, but if it means less pain, I’m in favor. I try to share my knowledge of what makes getting into my veins easier, such as wrapping my arms in warm towels, because it means less pain for me and less frustration for my technician.
When it comes to needle frequency, I’ve been lucky. Usually I can arrange my bloodwork schedule so I can use one visit to take care of the bloodwork requests from more than one doctor. I’ve been able to keep my needles down to once a week or less except when I need heparin shots or I’m in the hospital.
In the end, it’s about taking care of yourself. Even when you can’t control the frequency of needles in your life or maybe how much they’re going to hurt, you can take care of yourself through distraction with music, squeezing the heck out of someone else’s hand, or even allowing yourself to cry. Also, keep in mind stuffed animals enjoyed in childhood can still be surprisingly reassuring in adulthood. I’ve had my bear since I was eight, and he still goes to the hospital with me every time.
Hang in there, and if you have other coping ideas for needles, The Phoenix Zine would love to post them.