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How to Overcome Fear of Medical Procedures and Operations

Updated on November 30, 2012

Not many of us will escape the need for medical intervention in our lives and some of us may be unlucky enough to need an operation. For those who have fears or phobias about such things as needles, scan machines, dentists, or surgery, the very thought conjures up many frightening scenarios. Sometimes people actually refuse to go along with any of the necessary procedures even though their condition clearly and most definitely warrants it.

These particular fears are probably the most serious you can have, because in the worst case scenario your life may depend on your decisions and not those of the professionals. Your fears can prevent a proper diagnosis and therefore prevent the correct treatment.

How Did My Fears Start?

There are some common reasons why a person has developed irrational fears. Having already had a bad experience can be enough to start up a fear or phobia and is perhaps the most usual reason. Seeing someone else having a bad experience or hearing about bad experiences are also enough to get an overactive mind thinking negatively. It may be that you are already a generally anxious person or have an anxiety disorder and these kind of fears simply crept into the equation. Obsessional thinking is often a part of an anxiety disorder.

Having a fear of dentists is common
Having a fear of dentists is common | Source

Dental Fears (Dentophobia)

I think anyone who says they love going to the dentists is probably fibbing! It’s not pleasant lying back in the dentist’s chair with your mouth wide open and having someone prod your pain. Having a long needle inserted into your mouth, the sound of a drill and even the smell of the place can feel so unpleasant. Many people who mildly fear dental treatment will just go through with it and be glad when it is over but some people fear to the point of phobia and refuse treatment.

How to Help Your Dental Fears

  • First and foremost, talk to your dentist. The dentist is well aware that people have dental phobias. If he doesn’t know he can’t help you. He wants you to feel OK so that his job is made easier too. The last thing he wants is a panic attack during treatment and will work with you to accommodate your fears.
  • Ask if you can take along an ipod or mp3 player. Listening to soothing music or any music that calms you whilst the dentist is treating you can help tremendously.
  • Ask your dentist if he is willing to work with you on gradual exposure to your fears. Gradual exposure is the therapy of choice for phobias and is usually very successful. See table below for details.
  • Hypnotherapy is worth a try for helping with phobias.
  • As a last resort, although it is not actually conquering your dental fear, you could arrange with your dentist that you take a small dose of tranquiliser before the treatment such as valium or xanax. This is actually a fairly common practice for those who have a deep fear of dentists.

Having a phobia of needles isn't limited to having blood taken
Having a phobia of needles isn't limited to having blood taken | Source

Fear of Needles (Trypanophobia)

This is also a common phobia and is not confined to taking blood as many people tend to presume. It can include any form of needle procedure such as injections and cannula insertions. Anticipatory anxiety is severe for people who suffer with this phobia and by the time the procedure is actually going to happen, full panic attacks and even fainting can follow. So what can you do to help this phobia?

How to Help Your Needle Phobia


  • Hypnotherapy - working out why you became fearful of needles may be advantageous and hypnotherapy may help you work through this phobia, starting from the first time you felt fearful.
  • TFT - Thought-Field Therapy – a technique that requires you to tap on certain meridian points whilst thinking about your fear.
  • EMDR– Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing is another therapy that sometimes works with phobias.
  • Gradual exposure to desensitize you is another way forward, which you can get a friend to help with or ask the help of a therapist.
  • If you have no success and because the use of needles is sometimes vital for your health, you can buy anesthetic gels for your own use. Hospitals and clinics tend to use these gels readily on children to numb the area where the needle is inserted. If you don’t have any of your own you could always ask for some prior to your appointment.

People who suffer with claustrophobia have a very hard time in scan machines
People who suffer with claustrophobia have a very hard time in scan machines | Source

Fear of Scan Machines

Imaging machines, in which you have to lie flat in an enclosed space, sometimes for a considerable time, bring panic, especially to those who already have claustrophobia. Many people simply refuse to go in them or ask to come out of them in a very short space of time. CT scanning machines have tunnels considerably larger than MRI scanners but both are very frightening to a claustrophobic. It is such a common fear that patients are even given a panic button for an MRI scan! I have heard that there are now open and upright MRI scanners, but there appears to be limited availability of these in the UK.

How is a CT Scan Performed?

What Happens With an MRI Scan?

How to Help Your Fear of CT and MRI Scanners

  • Talk to both the doctor ordering the scan and the technician about your fears, preferably well before your appointment date. The more they know, the more they can advise the best way to handle your scan.
  • Ask if you may use an ipod and listen to relaxing music, especially for CT scans (headphones or earplugs are used with MRI scans to drown out machine noise). You could use an ipod whilst waiting to get into the scanner for general relaxation if they are not allowed inside the machine.
  • CBT- Cognitive - Behavioural Therapy may help you to look at the root cause, that of claustrophobia. Changing the way you think and behave in enclosed spaces is ultimately going to stop a fear of these machines.
  • A tranquilliser to calm you such as valium or xanax may be taken prior to the scan and you should ask before you attend.
  • Keep your eyes closed and try to imagine you are somewhere completely different, though this is more difficult with an MRI scan because of the noises produced during its operation.
  • If you can, try tilting your head back so that you may see the technician or attending professional (you may have to ask if someone can stay in the scan room with you). It’s difficult but if your scan doesn’t take too long it will help reassure you.

People with a fear of surgery can have some say in what happens in the pre-operative room
People with a fear of surgery can have some say in what happens in the pre-operative room | Source

Fear of Surgery (Tomophobia)

There are many logical reasons to fear surgery so don’t be too hard on yourself! Many people fear waking up during the operation, whilst others fear the anesthetic. Some panic at the thought of being unconscious, whilst others may fear the pain immediately following the operation. Needles, anesthetics, masks, gowns, incisions, loss of control and pain produce fear in so many of us, but there are some things we can try to make the experience less fearful.

How to Help Your Fear of Surgery

Again, talk to everyone concerned and make sure all professionals know of your fears. Trust is important to someone who fears. The anaesthetist is the person who not only gives you the anaesthetic but who will be at the head end of the operating table watching your vital signs. It is usual to speak to the anaesthetist before your operation, so spill! Sharing fears is very reassuring. Examples of what to discuss are:

  • Your preference for how the anaesthetic is administered i.e. mask or intravenous.
  • Your preference for pain relief may be important to you as not everyone wants to be knocked out with powerful analgesics (control issues).
  • You may prefer not to lie flat and could ask for an extra pillow in the pre-operative room.
  • If not offered, ask in advance for some pre-operation medication to relax you.
  • Bets of all, request that the anaesthetist does not give you a running commentary of what he is doing. This works well for those who are afraid of receiving the anaesthetic and afraid of falling unconscious.
  • You are usually allowed to take an ipod into the pre-operative room so do ask and make sure you have something very reassuring and calm to listen to.
  • Wherever possible, opt for keyhole surgery. You would be surprised how much invasive surgery is now carried out this way. I have just had a kidney removed with this technique and am glad that I did. You have minimal scarring and tend to have a quicker recovery time with keyhole surgery.

We don't have a tooth extracted every week and we don't have an operation every week either. If we can not cure ourselves of these medical fears then all is not lost. We can learn how to cope better and this is usually by taking back some control. Communication, distraction and using options to relax us will help us to go through with the required medical and surgical treatment necessary for our good health.


The Open Upright MRI Scanner in London

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    • Peter Geekie profile image

      Peter Geekie 12 months ago from Sittingbourne

      Dear meloncauli,

      Thank you for a very useful and informative article. Over the last couple of decades I have undergone quite a few surgical procedures and whilst I know the actual mechanics it doesn't stop me internally panicking on the day. I can cope with it but it is very uncomfortable and doesn't seem to get any better. Still I must learn to practice what I preach and perhaps I will find it easier.

      kind regards Peter

    • meloncauli profile image
      Author

      meloncauli 4 years ago from UK

      Thank you Audrey. Yes, meditation is very helpful. I shall look Pamela99 up soon . Thanks again.

    • brakel2 profile image

      Audrey Selig 4 years ago from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

      Great article. Your expertise shouts loud and clear, and I will be reading more hubs. My fear is tests where they anesthetize me, but I am doing better. Meditation and thought switching helps me, unless my brain goes on overload. It is so nice to meet you, and good luck in your endeavors. I hope you stick around, at least for a while. Pamela99 writes medical articles, so you might email her. Blessings. Audrey

    • meloncauli profile image
      Author

      meloncauli 5 years ago from UK

      Thanks for your comment izettl. Fear of medications is more common than you think and if you have just had a baby you are more likely to be over-stretched with tiredness, hormonal changes and so on. This can make any anxieties you have seem even larger! Can you look to alternative treatments for your arthritis?

    • izettl profile image

      Lizett 5 years ago from The Great Northwest

      I can relate to some of this. I suddenly got Rheumatoid Arthritis a couple of years ago and have only taken minimal meds for it- I had a baby this year, but now they want me to take some of the harsher meds so yes I have a fear of medications- ones that say, death of infections, cancer, etc in the warning label. Unfortunately all the meds for my illness are harsh- some are old cancer drugs. Going from someone who took vitamins, ate healthy, and exercised, this is unexpected and I'm honestly two months past due to taking meds that I probably should. I just can't get past the side effects list!

    • meloncauli profile image
      Author

      meloncauli 5 years ago from UK

      Many thanks for your comment kj force. Glad you found it interesting. Happy patients make for happy staff!

    • kj force profile image

      kjforce 5 years ago from Florida

      meloncauli...nicely done and informatively interesting...being retired from the med field I commend you. For over 38 years I preached this to my staff when any procedures were to be done to patients, explanation was a must..there is " power in knowledge" and patients feel more a part of the situation..positive also speeds the healing process..thank you for sharing your research with us...enjoyed the read..

    • meloncauli profile image
      Author

      meloncauli 5 years ago from UK

      Glad to hear it! :)

    • lindacee profile image

      lindacee 5 years ago from Arizona

      He's coming along quite nicely (I think he has more energy than I do!) and I'm doing well. Thanks for asking! :)

    • meloncauli profile image
      Author

      meloncauli 5 years ago from UK

      Thanks Linda. Yes I am thank you! I agree that when things move quickly you have far less time for anxiety to build up. I had to wait so long that I was just pleased it was happening at last. I do hope your husband is on the mend now and that you too are well.

    • lindacee profile image

      lindacee 5 years ago from Arizona

      This is such a helpful Hub, meloncauli. I have "white coat syndrome" -- my bp elevates whenever I go to the dentist or doctor. Apparently I am not alone in my fears. I know how terrified my husband was prior to his bypass surgery. Luckily, he didn't have much time to obsess about it. They found the arterial blockage, and early the next morning he was in surgery. You had plenty of advance notice before your surgical procedure. That would be very stressful. Great insight and suggestions. Hope you're enjoying your Sunday.

    • meloncauli profile image
      Author

      meloncauli 5 years ago from UK

      Thanks catgypsy, glad you found it useful.

    • meloncauli profile image
      Author

      meloncauli 5 years ago from UK

      Thanks Leah. Yes, I agree that finding a sympathetic dentist helps a lot. Unfortunately, I reacted to a local anaesthetic at the dentists and my throat swelled up. I had to be carted away in an ambulance! Never feared them up to that point but now I use an ipod and get relaxed before I go in. I also found an anaesthetic I wasn't allergic to.

    • catgypsy profile image

      catgypsy 5 years ago from the South

      Thanks for this meloncauli. I am so scared of medical stuff...from going to the doctor to having any kind of procedure...everything! Your tips here are really useful and would make it a little less stressful. Great hub.

    • leahlefler profile image

      Leah Lefler 5 years ago from Western New York

      I can handle needles, scans, and childbirth. The dentist, however, will send me running for the hills! I am absolutely terrified of dental procedures (it doesn't help that I have a lower jaw that does not get numb with novocaine). This is a fantastic article, meloncauli - finding a sympathetic doctor (or dentist) is very important when you have a phobia!