Category Archives: Hypodermic Injection

Injections and the Personal Touch

“Fear of the needle is usually acquired in childhood.  The psychic trauma to millions of the population produced in this way undoubtedly creates obstacles to good doctor-patient relationships, essential diagnostic procedures, and even life-saving therapy.”  Janet Travell, “Factors Affecting Pain of Injection” (1955)[1]

It was during the 1950s that the administration of hypodermic injections became a fraught enterprise and a topic of medical discussion.  With World War II over and American psychoanalysis suffusing postwar culture, including the cultures of medicine and psychiatry, it is unsurprising that physicians should look with new eyes at needle penetration and the fears it provoked.

In the nineteenth century, it had been all about pain relieved, sometimes miraculously, by injection of opioids.  Alongside the pain relieved, the pain of the injection was quite tolerable, even minor, a mere afterthought.  But in the mid-twentieth century pain per se took a back seat.  It was no longer about the painful condition that prompted injection.  Nor, really, was it about the pain of injection per se.  Psychodynamic thinking trumped both kinds of pain.  Increasingly, the issue before physicians, especially pediatricians, was about two things:  the anxiety attendant to injection pain and the lasting psychological damage that was all too often the legacy of needle pain.  Elimination of injection pain mattered, certainly, but it became the means to a psychological end.  Relieve the pain, they reasoned, and you eliminate the apprehension that exacerbates the pain and leaves deep psychic scars.

And so physicians were put on notice.  They were enjoined to experiment with numbing agents, coolant sprays, and various counterirritants to minimize the pain that children (and a good many adults) dreaded.  They were urged to keep their needles sharp and their patients’ skin surfaces dry.  Coolant sprays and antiseptic solutions that left a wet film, after all, could be carried into the skin as irritants.  For the muscular pain attendant to deeper injections, still stronger anesthetics, such as procaine, might be called for.  Physicians were also encouraged to reduce injection pain through new technologies, to use, for example, hyposprays and spring-loaded presto injectors.  Injection “technique” was a topic of discussion, especially for intramuscular injections of new wonder drugs such as streptomycin.  To be sure, new technologies and refined technique often failed to eliminate injection pain, especially when a large volume of solution was injected.  But, then again, pain relief was only a secondary goal. The point of the recommendations was primarily psychological, viz., to eliminate “the psychological reaction to piercing the skin.”[2]  It was anticipation of pain and the fear it engendered that jeopardized the doctor-patient relationship.

Psychoanalysts themselves, far removed from the everyday concerns of pediatricians, family physicians, and internists, had little to say on the topic.  They were content to call attention now and again to needle symbolism – invariably phallic in nature – in dreams and childhood memories.  In 1954, the child analyst Selma Fraiberg recalled “The theory of a two-and-a-half-year-old girl who developed a serious neurosis following an observation of coitus.  The child maintained that ‘the man made the hole,’ that the penis was forcibly thrust into the woman’s body like the hypodermic needle which had been thrust into her by the doctor when she was ill.”   Pity this two and a half year old.

Inferences about male sadism and castration anxiety were integral to this train of thought.  In 50s-era psychoanalysis, needle injection could symbolize not only “painful penetration,” but also the sadistic mutilation of a little girl by a male doctor.[3]  One wants to say that such strained psychoanalytic renderings are long dead and buried, but the fact is they still find their way into the literature from time to time, usually in the context of dream interpretations.  Here is one from 1994:

Recently Ms. K mentioned a dream in which she was diabetic and had little packets of desiccated insulin which were also like condoms.  All she needed now was a hypodermic syringe and a needle.  I pointed out the sexual nature of the dream with its theme of penetration; she then remembered that in the dream a woman friend had lifted her skirt and Ms. K had ‘whammed the needle right in’.[4]

Psychoanalytic interpretive priorities change over time, whether or not in therapeutically helpful ways being a perennial subject of debate.  By the 1990s, there was belated recognition that children’s needle phobias really didn’t call for analytic unraveling; they derived from the simple developmental fact that “children are exposed to hypodermic needles prior to their ability to understand what is going on,” and, as such, were more amenable to behavioral intervention than psychoanalytic treatment.  In the hospital setting, in particular, children needed simple strategies to reduce fear, not psychoanalytic interpretations.[5]

In 1950s medicine, psychoanalysis was at its best when its influence was subtle and indirect.  Samuel Sterns’s thoughtful consideration of the “emotional aspects” of treating patients with diabetes, published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1953, is one such example.  Sterns worked out of the Abraham Rudy Diabetic Clinic of Boston’s Beth Israel Hospital, and he expressed indebtedness to the psychiatrist-psychoanalyst Grete Bibring and other members of her department for “many discussions” on the topic.

For most diabetics, of course, daily injections, self-administered whenever possible, were an absolute necessity.  And resistance to the injections, then as now, undercut treatment and resulted in poor glycemic control.[6]  How then to cope with the diabetic’s resistance to the needle, especially when “the injection of insulin is sometimes associated with a degree of anxiety, revulsion or fear that cannot be explained by the slight amount of pain involved.”[7]

Psychoanalysis provided a framework for overcoming the resistance.  It was not a matter of “simple reassurance” about insulin injections, Sterns observed, but – and it is Bibring’s voice we hear –

Recognition that apparently trivial and unfounded complaints about insulin injections may be based on deeply rooted anxiety for which the patient finds superficial rationalizations enables the physician to be more realistic and tolerant, and more successful in dealing with the problem.

Realism, tolerance, acceptance – this was the psychoanalytic path to overcoming the problem.  Physicians had to accept that diabetics’ anxiety about injections arose from “individual personalities,” and that each diabetic had his or her own adaptively necessary defenses.  Exhortation, criticism, direct confrontation – these responses had to be jettisoned on behalf of the kindness and understanding that would lead to a “positive interpersonal relation.”  This entailed an understanding of the patient’s transference to the physician:

It is particularly apparent that most of the reactions of juvenile diabetic patients to discipline, authoritativeness or criticism by the physician are really identical with their reactions to similar situations involving their parents.

And it included a  like-minded willingness to wrestle with the countertransference as an obstacle to treatment:

Even the occasional display of an untherapeutic attitude by the physician is enough to interfere with the development of a relation that will enable him to obtain maximal cooperation from the patient.  If the physician cultivates awareness of his own reactions to a difficult patient, he will be less easily drawn into retaliation or other negative behavior.[8]

The point of the analytic approach was to lay the groundwork for a “positive interpersonal relation” that would enlist the patient’s cooperation, and “not through anxiety or fear of the disease or the physician, but rather through the wish to be well and to gain the physician’s approval.”[9]  Sympathetic acceptance of the patient’s fears, of the defenses against those fears, of the life circumstances that led to the defenses – this was the ticket to the kind of positive transference relationship that the physician could use to his and the patient’s advantage.


Sterns’s paper of 1953 remains helpful to this day; it exemplifies the application of general psychoanalytic concepts to real-world medical problems that, as I suggested in the final chapter of Psychoanalysis at the Margins (2009), may breathe new life into a beleaguered profession.  The reasonableness of Sterns’s recommendations stands in contrast to the insular irrelevance of  George Moran’s “Psychoanalytic Treatment of Diabetic Children” (1984), where poor glycemic control among children becomes a “metaphorical expression[s] of psychological disturbance” — framed in terms of “entrenched defensive structures” and “drive derivatives” – that calls for psychoanalytic treatment, sometimes via “prolonged stays” of up to several months in pediatric wards.[10]  And yet, there is something missing from Sterns’s commentary.  Like other writers of his time, he was concerned lest needle anxiety become an obstacle to a good doctor-patient relationship.  Cultivate the relationship through sympathetic insight into the problem, he reasoned, and  the obstacle would diminish, perhaps even disappear.  What he ignored – indeed, what all these hospital- and clinic-based writers of the time ignored – is the manner in which a preexisting “good doctor-patient relationship” can defuse needle anxiety in the first place.

Nineteen fifty three, the year Sterns’s paper was published, was also the year my father, William Stepansky, opened his general practice at 16 East First Avenue, Trappe, Pennsylvania.  My father, as I have written, was a Compleat Physician in whom wide-ranging procedural competence commingled with a psychiatric temperament and deeply caring sensibility.  In the world of 1950s general practice, his office was, as Winnicott would say, a holding environment.  His patients loved him and relied on him to provide care.  If injections were part of the care, then ipso facto, they were caring interventions, whatever the momentary discomfort they entailed.

The forty years of my father’s practice spanned the first 40 years of my life, and, from the time I was around 13, we engaged in ongoing conversations about his patients and work.  Never do I recall his remarking on a case of needle anxiety, which is not to deny that any number of patients, child and adult, became anxious when injection time arrived.  My point is that he contained and managed their anxiety so that it never became clinically significant or worthy of mention.  At the opposite end of the spectrum, I know of elderly patients who welcomed him into their homes several times a week for injections – sometimes just vitamin B-12 shots – that amplified the human support he provided.

Before administering an injection, my father firmly but gently grasped the underside of the patient’s upper arm, and the patient felt held, often in just those ways in which he or she needed holding.  When one’s personal physician gives an injection, it may become, in some manner and to some extent, a personal injection.  And personal injections never hurt as much as injections impersonally given.  This simple truth gets lost in the contemporary literature that treats needle phobia as a psychiatric condition in need of focal treatment.   A primary care physician remarked to me recently that she relieved a patient’s severe anxiety about getting an injection simply by putting the injection on hold and sitting down and talking to the patient for five minutes.  In effect, she reframed the meaning of the injection by absorbing it into a newly established human connection. Would that all our doctors would sit down with us for five minutes and talk to us as friendly human beings, as fellow sufferers, before getting down to procedural business.

I myself am more fortunate than most.  For me the very anticipation of an injection has a positive valence.  It conjures up the sights and smells and tactile sensations of my father’s treatment room.  Now in my 60s, I still have in my nostrils the bracing scent of the alcohol he used to clean the injection site, and I still feel the firm, paternal grasp of his hand on my arm at the point of injection.  I once remarked to a physician that she could never administer an injection that would bother me,  because at the moment of penetration, her hand became my father’s.

Psychoanalysts who adopt the perspective of object relations theory speak of “transitional objects,” those special inanimate things that, especially in early life, stand in for our parents and help calm us in their absence.  Such objects become vested with soothing human properties; this is what imparts their “transitional” status.  In a paper of 2002, the analyst Julie Miller ventured the improbable view, based on a single case, that the needle of the heroin addict represents a “transitional object” that fosters a maternal connection the addict never experienced in early life.[11]  For me, I suppose, the needle is also a transitional object, albeit one that intersects with actual lived experience of a far more inspiriting nature.  To wit, when I receive an injection it is always with my father’s hand, life-affirming and healing.  It is the needle that attests to a paternal connection realized, in early life and in life thereafter.  It is an injection that stirs loving memories of my father’s medicine.   So how much can it hurt?


[1] J. Travell, “Factors affecting pain of injection,” JAMA, 58:368-371, 1955, at p. 368.

[2] J. Travell, “Factors affecting pain of injection,” op. cit.; L. C. Miller, “Control of pain of injection,” Bull Parenteral Drug A., 7:9-13,1953; E. P. MacKenzie, “Painless injections in pediatric practice,” J. Pediatr., 44:421, 1954; O. F. Thomas & G. Penrhyn Jones, “A note on injection pain with streptomycin,” Tubercle, 36:157-59, 1955; F. H. J. Figge & V. M. Gelhaus, “A new injector designed to minimize pain and apprehension of parenteral therapy,” JAMA, 160:1308-10, 1956.  There were also needle innovations in the realm of intravenous therapy, e.g., L. I. Gardner & J. T. Murphy, “New needle for pediatric scalp vein infusions,” Amer. J. Dis. Child., 80:303-04, 1950.

[3] S. Fraiberg, “A critical neurosis in a two-and-a-half-year girl,” Psychoanal. Study Child, 7:173-215, 1952, at p. 180; S. Fraiberg, “Tales of the discovery of the secret treasure,” Psychoanal. Study Child, 9:218-41, 1954, at p. 236.

[4] I. D. Buckingham, “The effect of hysterectomy on the subjective experience of orgasm,” J. Clin. Psychoanal., 3:607-12, 1994.

[5] D. Weston, “Response,” Int. J. Psychoanal., 78:1218-19, 1997, at p. 1219; C. Troupp, “Clinical commentary,” J. Child Psychother., 36:179-82, 2010.

[6] There is ample documentation of needle anxiety among present-day diabetics, e.g., A. Zambanini, et al., “Injection related anxiety in insulin-treated diabetes,” Diabetes Res. Clin. Prac., 46:239-46, 1999 and A. B. Hauber, et al., “Risking health to avoid injections: preferences of Canadians with type 2 diabetes,” Diabetes Care, 28:2243-45, 2005.

[7]S. Stearns, “Some emotional aspects of the treatment of diabetes mellitus and the role of the physician,” NEJM, 249:471-76, 1953, at p. 473.

[8] Ibid., p. 474.

[9] Ibid.

[10]P. E. Stepansky, Psychoanalysis at the Margins (NY: Other Press, 2009), pp. 287-313; G. S. Moran, “Psychoanalytic treatment of diabetic children,” Psychoanal. Study Child, 39:407-447, at pp. 413, 440. 

[11]J. Miller, “Heroin addiction: the needle as transitional object,” J. Amer. Acad. Psychoanal., 30:293-304, 20.

Copyright © 2014 by Paul E. Stepansky.  All rights reserved.

It Was All About the Pain

“. . . and although the patient had long been a sufferer from dyspnea, chronic bronchitis, and embarrassed heart, we believed that the almost miraculous resurrection which took place would be permanent.  He died, however, on the second day.”   — Cameron MacDowall, “Intra-Peritoneal Injections in Cholera” (1883)[1]

Among the early British and American proponents of subcutaneous hypodermic injection, especially of liquefied morphine, the seeming miracle of instantaneous pain relief sufficed to bring physician and patient into attitudinal alignment.  We are a century removed from the psychoanalytic sensibility that encouraged physicians to explore the personal side of hypodermic injection and to develop strategies for overcoming patients’ anxieties about needle puncture, their “needle phobia.”

There is no need to read between the lines of nineteenth-century clinical reports to discern the convergence of physician delight and patient amazement at the immediate relief provided by hypodermic injection.  The lines themselves tell the story, and the story is all about the pain.  Patients who received hypodermic injections in the aftermath of Alexander Wood’s successful use of Daniel Ferguson’s  “elegant little syringe” were often in extremis.  Here is a woman of 40, who presented with a case of acute pleurisy (inflammation of the membrane around the lungs) in 1867:

The pain was most intense; great dyspnea [difficulty breathing] existed; sharp, lancinating pains at each rapid inspiration completely prostrated the patient, whose sufferings had been continuous for twelve hours.  About one-sixth of a grain of the acetate of morphia was used hypodermically, and with prompt relief, a few minutes only elapsing after its injection before its beneficial results followed.  The ordinary treatment being continued, a recovery was effected in a short time.[2]

Consider this “delicate elderly spinster” of 1879, who presented to her physician thusly:

I found her nearly unconscious, cramped all over body and legs, vomiting violently every minute or two, purging every few minutes, the purging being involuntary and under her.  She was showing the whites of the eyes, and the countenance was changed.  She was certainly all but gone.  Gave at once two-fifths of a grain of sulphate of morphia hypodermically.  She did not feel the prick of the needle in the least.[3]

And here is a surgeon from Wales looking in on a 48-year old gardener in severe abdominal pain at the Crickhowell Dispensary on August 1, 1882:

On my visiting him at 11:30 on the morning of the above date, I found him in great agony, in which condition his wife informed me he had been during the greater part of the previous night.  He implored me to do something for relief, saying he could endure the suffering no longer; and as I happened to have my hypodermic syringe in my pocket, I introduced into his arm four minims of a solution of acetate of morphia.  I then left him.[4]

A bit better off, one supposes – if only a bit – were patients who suffered  severe chronic pain, whether arthritic, gastrointestinal,  circulatory, or cancerous in nature.  They too were beneficiaries of the needle.  We encounter a patient with “the most intense pain in the knee-joint” owing to a six-year-long attack of gout.  Injection of a third of a grain of acetate of morphia was followed by “the most delightful results,” with “the patient expressing himself in glowing terms as to the efficacy and promptness of this new remedy.”  Instantaneous relief, compliments of the needle, enabled him to turn the corner; he “rallied rapidly, having none of the depression and debilitating effects, the resultant of long-continued pain, to recover from, as in former times.”[5]

So it was with patients with any number of ailments, however rare or nebulous in nature.  A 31-year-old woman was admitted to Massachusetts General Hospital in 1883 with what her physician diagnosed as multiple sarcomas (malignant skin tumors) covering her upper arms, breasts, and abdomen; she was given subcutaneous injections of Fowler’s Solution, an eighteenth-century tonic that was one percent arsenic.  Discharged from the hospital two weeks later, she self-administered daily injections of Fowler’s for another five months, by which time the lesions had cleared completely; a year later she remained “perfectly well to all appearance.”  In the 1890s, the decade when subcutaneous injections of various glandular extracts gripped the clinical imagination, it is hardly surprising to read that injection of liquefied gray matter of a sheep’s brain did remarkable things for patients suffering from nervous exhaustion (neurasthenia).  Indeed, its tonic effect comprised “increase of weight, appetite and weight, restoration of spirits and bien-être, disappearance of pain, sexual impotence and insomnia.”  At the other end of the psychophysical spectrum, patients who became manic, even violently delirious, during their bouts with acute illnesses such as pneumonia or rheumatic fever, “recovered in the ordinary way” after one or more injections of morphia, sometimes in conjunction with inhaled chloroform.[6]

Right through century’s end, the pain of disease was compounded by the pain of pre-injection treatment methods.  What the Boston surgeon Robert White, one of Wood’s first American followers, termed the “revolution in the healing art” signaled by the needle, addressed both poles of suffering.  Morphia’s “wonderful effects” on all kinds of pain — neuralgic pain, joint pain, digestive pain (dyspepsia), the pain of tumors and blockages – were heightened by the relative painlessness of injection.  Indeed, the revolutionary import of hypodermic injection, according to White, meant that “The painful and decidedly cruel endermic mode of applying medicines [i.e., absorption through the skin] may be entirely superseded, and the pain of a blistered surface completely avoided.”[7]  When it came to hemorrhoids, carbuncles, and small tumors, not to mention “foul and ill-conditioned ulcers,” hypodermic injections of carbolic acid provided “the only absolute and painless cure [original emphasis] of these exceedingly painful affections.”[8]

And what of the pain of the injection itself?  When it rates mention, it is only to put it in perspective, to underscore that “some pain at the moment of injection” gives way to “great relief from the pain of the disease” – a claim which, in this instance, pertained to alcohol solution injected in and around malignant tumors.[9]  Very rarely indeed does one find references to the pain of injection as a treatment-related consideration.[10]

Recognition of the addictive potential of repeated morphine injections barely dimmed the enthusiasm of many of the needle’s early proponents. Then, as now, physicians devised rationalizations for preferred treatment methods despite well-documented grounds for concern. They carved out diagnostic niches that, so they claimed, were exempt from mounting evidence of addiction.  A Melbourne surgeon who gave morphine injections to hospitalized parturients suffering from “puerperal eclampsia” (convulsions and coma following childbirth) found his patients able “to resist the dangerous effects of the drug; it seems to have no bad consequences in cases, in which, under ordinary circumstances, morphia would be strongly contra-indicated.” A physician from Virginia, who had treated puerperal convulsions with injectable morphine for 16 years, seconded this view.  “One would be surprised to see the effect of morphine in these cases,” he reported in 1887.  It was “as if bringing the dead to life.  It does not stupefy the patients, but renders them brighter.”[11]  A British surgeon stationed in Burma “cured” a patient of tetanus with repeated injections of atropine (belladonna), and held that his case “proved” that tetanus “induced” a special tolerance to an alkaloid known to have serious, even life-threatening, side effects.[12]  Physicians and patients alike stood in awe before a technology that not only heightened the effectiveness of the pharmacopeia of the time but also brought it to bear on an extended range of conditions.

Even failure to relieve suffering or postpone death spoke to the importance of hypodermic injection.  For even then, injections played a critical role in differential diagnosis: they enabled clinicians to differentiate, for example, “choleric diarrhea,” which morphine injections greatly helped, from, respectively, “malignant” (or Asiatic) cholera and common dysentery, which they helped not at all.[13]

To acknowledge that not all injections even temporarily relieved suffering or that not all injections were relatively painless was, in the context of nineteenth-century therapeutics, little more than a footnote.  Of course this was the case.  But it didn’t seem to matter.  There was an understandable wishfulness on the part of nineteenth-century physicians and patients about the therapeutic benefits of hypodermic injection per se, and this wishfulness arose from the fact that, prior to invention of the hypodermic syringe and soluble forms of morphine and other alkaloids, “almost miraculous resurrection” from intractable pain was not a possibility, or at least not a possibility arising from a physician’s quick procedural intervention.

For those physicians who, beginning in the late 1850s, began injecting morphine and other opioids to relieve severe pain, there was something magical about the whole process – and, yes, it calls to mind the quasi-magical status of injection and injectable medicine in some developing countries today.  The magic proceeded from the dramatic pain relief afforded by injection, certainly.  But it also arose from the realization, per Charles Hunter, that an injected opioid somehow found its way to the site of pain regardless of where it was injected.  It was pretty amazing.

The magic, paradoxically, derived from the new scientific understanding of medicinal therapeutic action in the final three decades of the nineteenth century.  The development of hypodermic injection is a small part of the triumph of scientific medicine, of a medicine of specific remedies for specific illnesses, of remedies increasingly developed in laboratories but bringing the fruits of laboratory science to the bedside.  We see the search for specific remedies in early trial-and-error efforts to find specific injectables and specific combinations of injectables for specific conditions – carbolic acid for hemorrhoids and carbuncles; morphine and atropia (belladonna) for puerperal convulsions; whisky and water for epidemic cholera; alcohol for tumors; ether for sciatica; liquefied sheep’s brain for nervous exhaustion; and on and on.

This approach signifies a primitive empiricism, but it is a proto-scientific empiricism nonetheless.  The very search for injectables specific to one or another condition is worlds removed from the Galenic medicine of the 1830s and ’40s, according to which all diseases were really variations of a single disease that had to do with the degree of tension or excitability in the blood vessels.

Despite the paucity of injectable medicines into the early twentieth century, hypodermic injection caught on because, despite the fantastical claims (to our ears) that abound in nineteenth-century medical journals, it was aligned with scientific medicine in ascendance.  Yes, the penetration of the needle was merely subcutaneous, but skin puncture was a portal to the blood stream and to organs deep inside the body.  In this manner, hypodermic injection partook of the exalted status of “heroic surgery” in the final quarter of the nineteenth century.[14]  The penetration of the needle, shallow though it was, stood in for a bold new kind of surgery, a surgery able to penetrate to the very anatomical substrate of human suffering.  Beginning in the late 1880s, certain forms of major surgery became recognizably modern, and the lowly needle was along for the ride.  The magic was all about the pain, but it was also all about the science.

[1] C. MacDowall, “Intra-peritoneal injections in cholera,” Lancet, 122:658-59, 1883, quoted at 658.

[2] T. L. Leavitt, “The hypodermic injection of morphia in gout and pleurisy,” Amer. J. Med. Sci., 55:109, 1868.

[3] W. Hardman, “Treatment of choleraic diarrhea by the hypodermic injection of morphia,” Lancet, 116:538-39, 1880, quoted at 539.

[4] P. E. Hill, “Morphia poisoning by hypodermic injection; recovery,” Lancet, 120:527-28, 1882, quoted at 527.

[5] Leavitt, “Hypodermic injection of morphia in gout and pleurisy,” op. cit.

[6] F. C. Shattuck, “Multiple sarcoma of the skin: treatment by hypodermic injections of Fowler’s solution; recovery,” Boston Med. Surg. J., 112:618-19, 1885; N.A., “Treatment of neurasthenia by transfusion (hypodermic injection) of nervous substance,” Boston Med. Surg. J., 126:273-74, 1892, quoted at 274; T. Churton, “Cases of acute maniacal delirium treated by inhalation of chloroform and hypodermic injection of morphia,” Lancet, 141:861-62, 1893.

[7] R. White, “Hypodermic injection of medicine, with a case,” Boston Med. Surg. J., 61:289-292, 1859, quoted at 290.

[8] N. B. Kennedy, “Carbolic acid injections in hemorrhoids and carbuncles,” JAMA, 6:529-30, 1886.

[9] E. Andrews, “The latest methods of treating carcinoma by hypodermic injection,” JAMA, 26:1159-60, 1897, quoted at 1159.

[10] For one such example, see NA, “The hypodermic injection of mercurials in the treatment of syphilis,” Boston Med. Surg. J., 131:246, 1894.

[11] S. Maberly-Smith, “On the treatment of puerperal convulsions by hypodermic injection of morphia,” Lancet, 118:86-87, 1881;  J. D. Eggleston, quoted in “The treatment of puerperal convulsions,” JAMA, 8:295-96, 1887, at 295.

[12] D. H. Cullumore, “Case of traumatic tetanus, treated with the hypodermic injection of atropia; amputation of great toe; recovery,” Lancet, 114:42-43, 1897.

[13] Hardman, “Treatment of choleraic diarrhea,” op. cit.; C. MacDowall, “Hypodermic injections of morphia in cholera,” Lancet, 116:636, 1880.

[14] On the “heroic surgery” of the final decades of the nineteenth century and the exalted status of late-nineteenth-century surgeons, see P. E. Stepansky, Freud, Surgery, and the Surgeons (Hillsdale, NJ: Analytic Press, 1999), pp. 23-34 and passim.

Copyright © 2014 by Paul E. Stepansky.  All rights reserved.

Will It Hurt?

“. . . the children’s population of this century has been submitted progressively as never before to the merciless routine of the ‘cold steel’ of the hypodermic needle.”  —Karl E. Kassowitz, “Psychodynamic Reactions of Children to the Use of Hypodermic Needles” (1958)

Of course, like so much medical technology, injection by hypodermic needle  has a prehistory dating back to the ancient Romans, who used metal syringes with disk plungers for enemas and nasal injections.  Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century physicians extended the sites of entry to the vagina and rectum, using syringes of metal, pewter, ivory, and wood.  Christopher Wren, the Oxford astronomer and architect, introduced intravenous injection in 1657, when he inserted a quill into the patient’s exposed vein and pumped in water, opium, or a purgative (laxative).

But, like so much medical technology, things only get interesting in the nineteenth century.  In the first half of the century, the prehistory of needle injection includes the  work of G. V. Lafargue, a French physician from the commune of St. Emilion.  He treated neuralgic (nerve) pain – his own included – by penetrating the skin with a vaccination lancet dipped in morphine and later by inserting solid morphine pellets under the skin through a large needle hole.  In 1844, the Irish physician Francis Rynd undertook injection by making a small incision in the skin and inserting a fine cannula (tube), letting gravity guide the medication to its intended site.[1]

The leap to a prototype of the modern syringe, in which a glass piston pushes medicine through a metal or glass barrel that ends in a hollow-pointed needle, occurred on two national fronts in 1853.  In Scotland, Alexander Wood,  secretary of Edinburgh’s Royal College of Physicians, injected morphine solution directly into his patients in the hope of dulling their neuralgias.  There was a minor innovation and a major one.  Wood used sherry wine as his solvent, believing it would prove less irritating to the skin than alcohol and less likely to rust his instrument than water.  And then the breakthrough:  He administered the liquid morphine through a piston-equipped syringe that ended in a pointed needle.  Near the end of the needle, on one side, was an  opening through which medicine could be released when an aperture on the outer tube was rotated into alignment with the opening.  It was designed and made by the London instrument maker Daniel Ferguson, whose “elegant little syringes,” as Wood described them, were intended to inject iron percholoride (a blood-clotting agent, or coagulant) into skin lesions and birthmarks in the hope of making them less unsightly.  It never occurred to him that his medicine-releasing, needle-pointed syringes could be used for subcutaneous injection as well.[2]

Across the channel in the French city of Lyon, the veterinary surgeon Charles Pravez employed a piston-driven syringe of his own making to inject iron percholoride into the blood vessels of sheep and horses.  Pravez was not interested in unsightly birthmarks; he was searching for an effective treatment for aneurysms (enlarged arteries, usually due to weakening of the arterial walls) that he thought could be extended to humans.  Wood was the first in print – his “New Method of Treating  Neuralgia by the Direct Application of Opiates to the Painful Points” appeared in the Edinburgh Medical & Surgical Journal in 1855[3] — and, shortly thereafter, he improved Ferguson’s design by devising a hollow needle that could simply be screwed onto the end of the syringe.  Unsurprisingly, then, he has received the lion’s share of credit for “inventing” the modern hypodermic syringe.  Pravez, after all, was only interested in determining whether iron percholoride would clot blood; he never administered medication through his syringe to animals or people.

Wood and followers like the New York physician Benjamin Fordyce Barker, who brought Wood’s technique to Bellevue Hospital in 1856, were convinced that the injected fluid had a local action on inflamed peripheral nerves.  Wood allowed for a secondary effect through absorption into the bloodstream, but believed the local action accounted for the injection’s rapid relief of pain.  It fell to the London surgeon Charles Hunter to stress that the systemic effect of injectable narcotic was primary.  It was not necessary, he argued in 1858, to inject liquid morphine into the most painful spot; the medicine provided the same relief when injected far from the site of the lesion.  It was Hunter, seeking to underscore the originality of his approach to injectable morphine, especially its general therapeutic effect, who introduced the term “hypodermic” from the Greek compound meaning “under the skin.”[4]

It took time for the needle to become integral to doctors and doctoring.  In America, physicians greeted the hypodermic injection with skepticism and even dread, despite the avowals of patients that injectable morphine provided them with instantaneous, well-nigh miraculous relief from chronic pain.[5]  The complicated, time-consuming process of preparing injectable solutions prior to the manufacture of dissolvable tablets in the 1880s didn’t help matters.  Nor did the trial-and-error process of arriving at something like appropriate doses of the solutions.  But most importantly, until the early twentieth century, very few drugs were injectable.  Through the 1870s, the physician’s injectable arsenal consisted of highly poisonous (in pure form) plant alkaloids such as morphine, atropine (belladonna), strychnine, and aconitine, and, by decade’s end, the vasodilator heart medicine nitroglycerine.  The development of local and regional anesthesia in the mid-1880s relied on the hypodermic syringe for subcutaneous injections of cocaine solution, but as late as 1905, only 20 of the 1,039 drugs in the U.S. Pharmacopoeia were injectable.[6]  The availability of injectable insulin in the early 1920s heralded a new, everyday reliance on hypodermic injections, and over the course of the century, the needle, along with the stethoscope, came to stand in for the physician.  Now, of course, needles and doctors “seem to go together,” with the former signifying “the power to heal through hurting” even as it “condenses the notions of active practitioner and passive patient.”[7]

The child’s fear of needles, always a part of pediatric practice, has generated a literature of its own.  In the mid-twentieth century, in the heyday of Freudianism, children’s needle anxiety gave rise to psychodynamic musings.  In 1958, Karl Kassowitz of Milwaukee Children’s Hospital made the stunningly commonsensical observation that younger children were immature and hence more anxious about receiving injections than older children.  By the time kids were eight or nine, he found, most had outgrown their fear.  Among the less than 30% who hadn’t, Kassowitz gravely counseled, continuing resistance to the needle might represent “a clue to an underlying neurosis.”[8]  Ah, the good old Freudian days.

In the second half of the last century, anxiety about receiving injections was “medicalized” like most everything else, and in the more enveloping guise of BII (blood, injection, injury) phobia, found its way into the fourth edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual in 1994. Needle phobia thereupon became the beneficiary of all that accompanies medicalization – a specific etiology, physical symptoms, associated EKG and stress hormone changes, and strategies of management.  The latter are impressively varied and range across medical, educational, psychotherapeutic, behavioral, cognitive-behavioral, relaxation, and desensitizing approaches.[9]  Recent literature also highlights the vasovagal reflex associated with needle and blood phobia.  Patients confronted with the needle become so anxious that an initial increase in heart rate and blood pressure is followed by a marked drop,   as a result of which they become sweaty, dizzy, pallid, nauseous (any or all of the above), and sometimes faint (vasovagal syncope).  Another interesting finding is that needle phobia (especially in its BII variant) along with its associated vasovagal reflex probably have a genetic component, as there is a much higher concordance within families for BII phobia than other kinds of phobia. Researchers who study twins put the heritability of BII phobia at around 48%.[10]

Needle phobia is still prevalent among kids, to be sure, but it has long since matured into a fully grown-up condition. Surveys find injection phobia in anywhere from nine to 21% of the the general population and even higher percentages of select populations, such as U.S. college communities.[11]               A study by the Dental Fears Research Clinic of the University of                               Washington in 1995 found that over a quarter of surveyed students and university employees were fearful of dental injections, with 5% admitting they avoided or canceled dental appointments out of fear.[12]  Perhaps some of these needlephobes bear the scars of childhood trauma.  Pediatricians now urge control of the pain associated with venipuncture and intravenous cannulation (tube insertion) in infants, toddlers, and young children, since there is evidence such procedures can have a lasting impact on pain sensitivity and tolerance of needle picks.[13]

But people are not only afraid of needles; they also overvalue them and seek them out.  Needle phobia, whatever its hereditary contribution, is a creation of Western medicine.  The surveys cited above come from the U.S., Canada, and England.  Once we shift our gaze to developing countries of Asia and Africa we behold a different needle-strewn landscape.  Studies attest not only to the high acceptance of the needle but also to its integration into popular understandings of disease.  Lay people in countries such as Indonesia, Tanzania, and Uganda typically want injections; indeed, they often insist on them because injected medicines, which enter the bloodstream directly and (so they believe) remain in the body longer, must be more effective than orally injected pills or liquids.

The strength, rapid action, and body-wide circulation of injectable medicine – these things make injection the only cure for serious disease.[14]  So valued are needles and syringes in developing countries that most lay people, and even Registered Medical Practitioners in India and Nepal, consider it wasteful to discard disposable needles after only a single use.  And then there is the tendency of people in developing countries to rely on lay injectors (the “needle curers” of Uganda; the “injection doctors” of Thailand; the informal providers of India and Turkey) for their shots.  This has led to the indiscriminate use of  penicillin and other chemotherapeutic agents, often injected without attention to sterile procedure.  All of which contributes to the spread of infectious disease and presents a major headache for the World Health Organization.

The pain of the injection?  Bring it on.  In developing countries, the burning sensation that accompanies many injections signifies curative power.  In some cultures, people also welcome the pain as confirmation that real treatment has been given.[15]  In pain there is healing power.  It is the potent sting of modern science brought to bear on serious, often debilitating disease.  All of which suggests the contrasting worldviews and emotional tonalities collapsed into the fearful and hopeful question that frames this essay:  “Will it hurt?”

[1] On the prehistory of hypodermic injection, see D. L. Macht, “The history of intravenous and subcutaneous administration of drugs,” JAMA, 55:856-60, 1916; G. A. Mogey, “Centenary of Hypodermic Injection,” BMJ, 2:1180-85, 1953; N. Howard-Jones, “A critical study of the origins and early development of hypodermic medication,” J. Hist. Med., 2:201-49, 1947 and N. Howard-Jones, “The origins of hypodermic medication,” Scien. Amer., 224:96-102, 1971.

[2] J. B. Blake, “Mr. Ferguson’s hypodermic syringe,” J. Hist. Med., 15: 337-41, 1960.

[3] A. Wood, “New method of treating neuralgia by the direct application of opiates to the painful points,” Edinb. Med. Surg. J., 82:265-81, 1855.

[4] On Hunter’s contribution and his subsequent vitriolic exchanges with Wood over priority, see Howard-Jones, “Critical Study of Development of Hypodermic Medication,” op cit.  Patricia Rosales provides a contextually grounded discussion of the dispute and the committee investigation of Edinburgh’s Royal Medical and Chirurgical Society to which it gave rise.  See P. A. Rosales, A History of the Hypodermic Syringe, 1850s-1920s.  Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Department of the History of Science, Harvard University, 1997, pp. 21-30.

[5] See Rosales, History of Hypodermic Syringe, op. cit., chap. 3, on the early reception of hypodermic injections in America.

[6] G. Lawrence, “The hypodermic syringe,” Lancet, 359:1074, 2002; J. Calatayud & A. Gonsález, “History of the development and evolution of local anesthesia since the coca leaf,” Anesthesiology, 98:1503-08, 2003, at p. 1506; R. E. Kravetz, “Hypodermic syringe,” Am. J. Gastroenterol., 100:2614-15, 2005.

[7] A. Kotwal, “Innovation, diffusion and safety of a medical technology: a review of the literature on injection practices,”  Soc. Sci. Med., 60:1133-47, 2005, at p. 1133.

[8] Kassowitz, “Psychodynamic reactions of children to hypodermic needles,”  op. cit., quoted at p. 257.

[9] Summaries of the various treatment approaches to needle phobia are given in J. G. Hamilton, “Needle phobia:  a neglected diagnosis,” J. Fam. Prac., 41:169-75 ,1995  and H. Willemsen, et al., “Needle phobia in children:  a discussion of aetiology and treatment options, ”Clin. Child Psychol. Psychiatry, 7:609-19, 2002.

[10] Hamilton, “Needle phobia,” op. cit.; S. Torgersen, “The nature and origin of common phobic fears,” Brit. J. Psychiatry, 134:343-51, 1979; L-G. Ost, et al., “Applied tension, exposure in vivo, and tension-only in the treatment of blood phobia,” Behav. Res. Ther., 29:561-74, 1991;  L-G. Ost, “Blood and injection phobia: background and cognitive, physiological, and behavioral variables,” J. Abnorm. Psychol., 101:68-74, 1992.

[11] References to these surveys are provided by Hamilton, “Needle phobia,” op. cit.

[12] On the University of Washington survey, see P. Milgrom, et al., “Four dimensions of fear of dental injections,” J. Am. Dental Assn., 128:756-66, 1997 and T. Kaakko, et al., “Dental fear among university students: implications for pharmacological research,” Anesth. Prog., 45:62-67, 1998.  Lawrence Prouix reported the results of the survey in The Washington Post under the heading “Who’s afraid of the big bad needle?” July 1, 1997, p. 5.

[13] R. M. Kennedy, et al., “Clinical implications of unmanaged need-insertion pain and distress in children,” Pediatrics, 122:S130-S133, 2008.

[14] See Kotwal, “Innovation, diffusion and safety of a medical technology,” op. cit., p. 1136 for references.

[15] S. R. Whyte & S. van der Geest, “Injections: issues and methods for anthropological research,” in N. L. Etkin & M. L. Tan, eds., Medicine, Meanings and Contexts (Quezon City, Philippines: Health Action Information Network, 1994), pp. 137-8.

Copyright © 2014 by Paul E. Stepansky.  All rights reserved.