Your Health
By Michael Warren 

I have a confession. I’m scared of needles. It’s not an uncommon fear. Most people don’t like having sharp objects stuck into them, regardless of the payoff. 

As they say, no one promised us that life would be a rose garden, so maybe we have to think of the occasional needle as the thorn in our side. 

As with so many other areas of medicine, it may help alleviate some of your fears if you understand just what needles can do for you. 

Doctors do not enjoy giving shots to patients, but the information and results that can be gained through their use are invaluable. For example, needles inserted into the veins can remove blood to be tested for hundreds of conditions, from AIDS to zinc levels. And, just as things can be taken out of the body, others can be injected, such as antibiotics, lifesaving plasma, medications and water. 

Arteries are major blood vessels that carry blood from the heart to the rest of the body. A needle can be used to draw blood from the arteries, providing information on oxygen levels and other critical readings. 

Through arteries, needles can be used to place small, sophisticated tubes directly into the heart to measure function, to take X-rays of vessels, and to perform angioplasties, a procedure to open diseased or injured vessels.

Similarly, tubes can be inserted through needles into the kidneys, the brain, anywhere there are blood vessels, for testing of blood, to take tissue specimens, remove growths, for treatment and for X-rays. 

Needles can be stuck directly into the liver, kidney, brain, lymph nodes and other areas for biopsies, to drain abscesses, to perform tests and to determine if all is working normally. 

Larger instruments the size of a pencil or small cigar can also be inserted through the skin for a variety of purposes, including the removal of kidney stones and gall bladders and to perform tubal ligations. Large needles inserted into the joints can help observe and treat cartilage problems, including arthritis. 

There is virtually no place in the body that a needle cannot be used. What a dreadful thought, you say? 

Because this simple instrument is so effective, doctors are able to help you avoid many types of major (and expensive) medical procedures, including some surgery. The bad news is that you get the needle. 

However, just as you must take charge of other aspects of your health care, it’s important to question any procedure, including the use of needles. Just because you have a vein, doesn’t mean it needs to be stuck. Exercise your right to be informed. 

Dr. Michael M. Warren is Ashbel Smith Professor of Surgery in the division of urology at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston.