Bodywork: Do needles hurt less than they used to?
Here’s a question from one of our most loyal and curious readers. Let’s call her Mom.
Dear Dr. Prescott: I may be misremembering, but it seems like shots and blood draws were more painful when I was younger. Is it just my imagination, or do needles hurt less than they used to?
— Regina Buckley, Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania
Dr. Prescott Prescribes
I probably haven’t administered a shot since my days as a medical resident in the 1970s. So, here’s a response from Dr. Eliza Chakravarty, an immunologist and a rheumatologist who regularly sees patients in the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation’s Rheumatology Center of Excellence:
The needle’s width, known technically as the gauge, has a lot do with how uncomfortable it feels when it pierces your skin. Not surprisingly, the narrower the needle (which, ironically, means it has a larger gauge number), the less it hurts.
However, slimmer needles also are less effective in delivering a vaccine or withdrawing blood from your arm. They’re also more likely to break off, which is something we always want to avoid.
Over the past decades, metallurgical advances have, I’m sure, created stronger needles. That means they can be narrower — less painful — but just as effective at delivering vaccines.
In blood draws, we want to keep the needle wider, as that gets the blood out faster and, hence, the experience over faster. Still, stronger metals likely have shrunk the gauges of needles used here, too, meaning less pain compared to “the old days.”
When it comes to vaccinations, another difference is the adjuvants in the shots. These are chemicals that are largely used to enhance the effectiveness of vaccines.
Over time, we’ve learned that many of these can cause pain, both at the time of administration and in the days after. As we’ve studied the body’s response to vaccination, we’ve been able to utilize adjuvants that yield less discomfort.
Prescott, a physician and medical researcher, is president of the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation. Cohen is a marathoner and OMRF’s senior vice president and general counsel.