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3 Things to Do If You’re Freaked Out by Blood Tests

3 Things to Do If You’re Freaked Out by Blood Tests
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Note: This column was updated July 23, 2020, to remove erroneous information about red blood cells. We regret the error. 

When I was newly diagnosed seven years ago, one of the hardest things to deal with was the idea of having regular blood tests. I was petrified of needles. 

I had never needed blood tests before. My mum donates blood, and I used to like going with her because they gave me sweets while I waited. She also received pin badges afterward to congratulate her on how much blood she’d donated. I never saw any needles, just lots of people lying down on beds in a big hall. I thought, “If blood tests are the same as this, they can’t be that bad, right?”

But with a blood test, they don’t give you treats, and they certainly don’t give you pin badges. (Imagine if they did — we’d have hundreds by now!) Most often, you’re stuck in a tiny room with a nurse, hoping she knows what she’s doing and has done this before. 

I don’t know my blood type or what they test in your blood when you have MS, but I do know that we need blood tests. And every medication is different. 

I’m on Tecfidera (dimethyl fumerate), and as far as I know, they mainly test my white blood cells (the immune cells) and some other stuff. Sometimes they test my vitamin D, and I have to specifically ask for that.

With Tecfidera, I need to have a blood test every three months or I can’t receive my medication. All medications are different, and it’s best to ask your medical team what you need to do if you’re unsure.

After having so many blood tests over the last five years, I thought I’d pass on my knowledge and my three best tips for having a blood test. These are things no one ever told me. 

1. Drink a pint of water an hour before. 

I used to pass out every time I had a blood test. So much anxiety and fear would build up that I couldn’t eat or drink anything. As it turns out, this is not helpful, and you need to drink at least a pint of water an hour before. Bonus tip: Have something sugary or sweet on hand for afterward. (I imagine that’s why we get sweets after giving blood?) 

Water helps to make your veins more plump and visible.

2. Stay calm. 

Stress and anxiety from having a blood test are perfectly normal. I remember sitting in the waiting room, waiting for my turn, and finding myself shaking with fear. I developed some strategies since then and am not nervous in the slightest now. 

Make sure to tell the person drawing your blood if you’re feeling anxious so they can put you at ease. It may help to ask for numbing cream to numb the area where blood will be drawn if you’re worried about the pain of the needle. You also can try asking for a smaller needle (often called a butterfly needle), which might be less painful.

Remember, it only lasts a few seconds and is over in no time. Take deep breaths and practice my anxiety techniques.

3. Ask for help.

A tip I picked up (admittedly, too late) is easy to do. Nurses in the U.K. tend to say “sharp scratch” when they’re about to pierce the skin with the needle, which I don’t find helpful in the slightest. I frequently ask them not to say it. When they do say it, I feel my body tense up for what’s coming. Tensing up often makes it hurt more and gives me a bruise.

Do nurses say that where you are? If not, what do they say? 

Another bonus tip: Take a deep breath when you know they are about to pierce the skin. That helps distract the mind, and it makes it hurt less. Two seconds and it’s over. 

Do you have any tips for blood tests that I haven’t mentioned? Please share in the comments below. 

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Note: Multiple Sclerosis News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Multiple Sclerosis News Today or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to multiple sclerosis.

Jessie is the host of the DISabled to ENabled podcast and author of the “ENabled Warriors Symptom Tracker” book. She’s also an illustrator working with MS charities and magazines worldwide. She’s interviewed paralympians, radio DJs, chronic illness bloggers, marathon runners, and more. Jessie, based in the U.K., was diagnosed with MS at 22 years old and was told by a doctor to “go home and Google it” to find out what MS was for herself. Her own experience of being newly diagnosed so young was negative and scary, so she fills the internet with positivity for other anxious MS Googlers to stumble upon.
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Jessie is the host of the DISabled to ENabled podcast and author of the “ENabled Warriors Symptom Tracker” book. She’s also an illustrator working with MS charities and magazines worldwide. She’s interviewed paralympians, radio DJs, chronic illness bloggers, marathon runners, and more. Jessie, based in the U.K., was diagnosed with MS at 22 years old and was told by a doctor to “go home and Google it” to find out what MS was for herself. Her own experience of being newly diagnosed so young was negative and scary, so she fills the internet with positivity for other anxious MS Googlers to stumble upon.

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23 comments

  1. RG says:

    If you cough at the same time your nurse inserts the needle you won’t feel it! It’s a trick allergists use with kids. 😎

    “As the needle comes into contact with the skin, the patient is urged to cough vigorously. That cough, say the doctors, in an article published online ahead of print in the British Journal of Plastic Surgery (www.bjps.com), may provide distraction and momentarily increase blood pressure. The authors say that it has been established that hypertension can reduce pain perception.”
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC344294/

    • Jessie Ace says:

      Hey Leanne, from my understanding it boosts the oxygen in your blood which creates more blood cells (so you don’t pass out) secondly, it helps the nurse to locate your veins too 🙂 does that help lovely? x

    • Debra Barton says:

      No one can ever get my vein. I try to drink water, but I’m two hours away. I urinate constantly and don’t want this to happen. Cough when the needle goes in, that’s a good idea. I’ve had one person after the other try to get a vein. Lots of times they give up after trying both arms.

      • Linda Mattoi says:

        I was told by the phlebotomist that when you drink before getting blood drawn it hydrates you and your veins are easier to find. Even for a fasting blood test.
        I live in Pennsylvania USA
        They say “you will feel a little prick.”

        • Barney Porpoise says:

          If I ever heard a medical professional utter “You will feel a Little Prick”, I believe that when I was done laughing, that my statement would be an empathetic, “I better not be feeling a little prick, because my spouse would be 😡upset 😡!”

  2. FB says:

    PLEASE – let’s at least get the biological processes right. I’d like to see some actual evidence to Re support your ludicrous claim that “Drinking a pint of water beforehand means you are boosting the oxygen in your system, thereby creating more red blood cells. If you don’t do this, you’ll have too little blood in you at the time they take it, and that’s why you pass out — a lack of oxygen.” Drinking water does not stimulate the production of red blood cells, and even if it did nothing would happen in such a short space of time as it takes two days for a red blood cell to be created from the stem cells produced by your bone marrow. What drinking water does do is ensure that you are adequately hydrated and thus your blood volume is not reduced and veins will “pop up” more easily for the sample to be taken. For many PwMS who have bladder and continence issues it’s a very fine balancing act between fluid consumption and the timing of blood draws so that you don’t pee your pants while the sample is being taken!!! For managing MS related urgency issues I’ve found that drinking a reasonable sized glass of water about 15 to 20 minutes beforehand helps, and then staying at the blood draw site and not leaving until after I’ve been to the toilet is a useful strategy.

    Ditto for the statement “When you let panic take over, the brain uses more oxygen from the blood, meaning fewer red blood cells are created, so your oxygen drops.” This is utter garbage. I suggest you read the article on this link, where the process of red cell production is explained. Note that it took a whole 2½ minutes for me to find an article of a suitable level that ordinary people could understand and you should have done so and understood the red cell production process before writing such misleading unscientific rubbish. The article also explains that red blood cell production is driven by reduced oxygen levels, not by drinking water as you have claimed, so “theoretically” if your brain was using more oxygen then this should trigger higher production of red blood cells, not less as you have stated.
    https://www.britannica.com/science/blood-biochemistry/Production-of-red-blood-cells-erythropoiesis

    For probably 98% of the population insertion of the needle used for taking a blood sample is pretty much painless, it’s the hype and anxiety that people get caught up in which is the problem. The best tip I can give is to simply not watch – look away while the nurse inserts the needle, and you’ll find that it really does end up being just a quick “pin prick” that’s done before you’ve even had time to get worked up about it. That’s why people distract children with toys and things to get them to look away – generally when children need to have blood taken they are highly stressed already about whatever’s happened that has made taking a sample necessary, but if they can be distracted it’s all over before they even notice it. For older children and adults it’s all the stressing about it for an hour beforehand which is the problem and makes it seem like a huge thing.

    And Yes, I’ve had many many many blood tests in the last few years – a couple of serious illnesses had me having blood tests daily for several weeks, a different illness had them done weekly for over 3 months, so I have plenty of experience. However, before MS and other health issues I used to have a lot of the stress and anxiety that many people suffer from but the effectiveness of the “make sure you’re properly hydrated and look away” hints will fairly quickly reduce the stress levels, even for people who have hard to find veins.

    • Mer says:

      I have had many blood draws, some good, some excellent. I believe that drinking water beforehand does help. My veins tend to roll, which make the process uncomfortable. The best draw came with a tech who told me to unclench my hand. No one was done that since.wonder why on one ever does that. Just wondering?

  3. Mandy Adam says:

    I recently had blood tests and they needed to take more blood from me. It didn’t work then a man came in the room with a scanner. He put the clear liquid on the vein on my arm and he scanned the blood. I was very happy with that method as I hate having blood tests done

  4. Anna Davis says:

    Thanks for explaining that you should drink a pint of water beforehand to make your veins more visible. I have been having some hormonal issues for the past six months, so I think I need to have my blood tested. I will be sure to have plenty of water before and after so that it goes as smoothly as possible.

  5. Robert says:

    How do you go about this if your fear is so great that you can’t even go to a blood test? I don’t know what options for me are left. I feel like I would need to be asleep/unconscious before I would let myself be taken to a blood test, even though I know I need one. My anxiety and fear are so high that, in the moment, even death seems like a better option than a needle, and yes I know how that sounds, but that is the level of anxiety and fear that I experience when someone even mentions needles. I know how unfounded these fears are. I have tried the suggestions here like drinking water and breathing, trying to calm myself down, but none of it seems to effect my level of anxiety about needles. Doctors and nurses basically play down my fears to the point where I have walked out the couple times I managed to force myself to a doctor’s office. Now with the c/v vaccine I’m scared because I want to get it but, judging from past experiences, I don’t think I’ll be able to with my fear.

    • Jessie Ace says:

      Hi Robert. Thank you so much for sharing your fears I think that is a very brave step. Which part is the most anxiety-inducing for you? Is it the walking into the doctor’s office or is it the few seconds where the needle is inserted? Knowing this will help you as you can start to break down the fear into smaller parts and handle it one part at a time. Try reading some of Marissa Peer’s work, she’s an extraordinary therapist. Just watching her videos on youtube has changed my life and removed some of the fears that I had. You can do this Robert! #StayENabled

  6. Stuck says:

    I found this article about needles on your website .
    I am like Robert. I have used alternative natural medicines and avoided healthcare for most of my life and I am almost 60. Luckily , as a young person I avoided people during cold and flu season and avoided illness ( I had perfect attendance at work for 30 years, only taking paid vacations ) and I once read an article that said yearly physicals are not really necessary.
    I get so worked up at the thought of needles, shots, blood work, doctors , I can’t stand the smell of doctor offices and hospitals so don’t accompany or visit anyone in the hospital. When a concerned friend or family member makes light of my fear or tries to convince me that it’s nothing, I get more disturbed and it is not helpful. I don’t like needles or shots of any kind, do not take an annual flu shot and was on the fence about the COVID-19 vaccine and was hoping the nasal version of the vaccine would come sooner. I fear being alone in the hospital during COVID worse than anything so I want to get the vaccine but my phobia prevented me so far from signing up.
    But worse than shots or needles going into my body is the thought of blood work. My mother had the deep , rolling kind of veins , as a kid I saw her badly bruised arms ( both) when she returned from the doctors after having blood work done and that awful memory is entrenched in my brain and has impacted the rest of my life.
    One time in and an emergency I had to have blood drawn at the emergency room and I told them about my fears. I wasn’t sure what veins I would have because I had not had any blood work . The nurse or tech tried the blood draw and it didn’t work the first time so they moved to the other arm I could have died right then as my fear was kicking in on overdrive and what I suspected, I had the hard to find veins too. It didn’t work a second time either and I was starting to freak out so bad, I almost fled but they had their anesthesiologist come and use a different needle and took the blood from the back of my hand where you could clearly see a vein versus inside the elbow. That was the last time I had blood drawn almost 30 years ago. I was traumatized and think of it often.

    I also don’t know my blood type and would like to know more about my blood and thyroid hormones which (so far ) requires blood work. I don’t even have a doctor as I don’t want to do blood work and know she would order blood work first thing.
    I don’t entirely trust the insurance and healthcare systems so I haven’t done routine screenings which I know isn’t wise.
    I want to enjoy my retirement years. I am a healthy eater – pescatarian for 40 years. I work outdoors and get fresh air and exercise.
    I am bound by my fears of needles, blood work and the western medical establishment in general and haven’t gotten past these fears especially not getting any blood work. I thought I may be able to push past the needle fear to get the vaccine (by not looking ) but when I read about “boosters yearly” for COVID , I was shocked as I trying so hard to convince myself of the one and done type vaccination so I went back in my shell. I am still hoping that soon the nasal vaccine will be available as I don’t want to avoid my family and friends forever. I miss hugs.
    I read from someone above about scanning over a vein for blood work. Is there the possibility that a scan could do the same blood tests versus using needles? Will more tests be able to be done that way if a person is terrified or can more test be done with one small sample if the person ever does get blood drawn. I am afraid I wouldn’t go back for additional blood work/ if I ever could get myself to go at all. How much blood do they require for all the tests. Can multiple test be done with one blood sample.
    I read about the therapy where they expose you to needles more and more but that’s the last thing I’d sign up for. Gassing me would be better but ….I love life and my family and friends and I want to live and a blood test will be needed eventually at least for one initial base.
    Stuck.

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