By Dr. Michael M. Warren

I have often mentioned that one of the reasons I went to medical school was to get on the right side of the needle. Ask any 4- or 5-year-old and you will see that I am not alone in that feeling.

The problem is, while there are other ways to get medications into our bodies, the needle is still often required. The other side of the coin is that there are also times when the needle must be used to get blood out of us so a variety of sophisticated tests can be performed.

So, let’s talk a little about the “old needle.”

When I was a young man, just starting out in my medical career, we did not enjoy the advantages of what we use today. In fact, although needles were constructed out of stainless steel they were designed to be used over and over again. Of course, they would be cleaned and sterilized after every use. But, they did get dull after several injections and had to be sharpened periodically with a special stone.

Not only that, but the syringes to which the needles are attached were made of glass and were also cleaned, sterilized and used until they broke. Actually, since they were made out of glass and the floors are hard, they broke quite often.

Today the whole thing is different. The needles and syringes are used only once and then destroyed. They are very sharp and cause minimal discomfort when used “appropriately.” But, when you consider it, used appropriately is often difficult to accomplish.

Think about it for a minute. If the purpose of the needle is to obtain some blood for testing, then there is considerable skill involved with getting the needle into the vein and nowhere else. Sometimes it takes several sticks to get the needed sample. Since everyone’s veins are different, some being small, some tiny, some that move around when you push on them and some nonexistent in an area that is best to “stick,” there is often a challenge.

And, as you might imagine, the experience of the person using the needle plays a role. There are specialists who are quite expert in this area. They are called phlebotomists, and it’s what they do all day. They are usually quite accomplished at the task.

Believe me, if given the choice of having a phlebotomist take your blood versus a doctor doing it, choose the phlebotomist and you won’t go wrong.

If the purpose of the needle is to insert some type of material into the patient, such as antibiotics, insulin and a bunch of other materials there is usually much less of a challenge. Then the purpose is to get whatever is being injected into your tissues without getting into any blood vessels. So, if you are able to watch the injection process you will see the person doing the injection pull back a little on the plunger of the syringe to make sure no blood comes back into it and therefore is safe to inject into your tissues.

To sum it up, when you do need a needle, either to have an injection or to take some blood, be assured that it will be a safe and relatively painless process and is important as the best way to get treatment or information about your health. If you are really lucky, you may get a piece of candy or a lollipop, if you are a good boy or girl.