In belonephobia, the most prevalent form of needle phobia, the mere sight of a needle triggers a physical domino effect known as a vasovagal reaction: a central nerve flares up, then blood vessels dilate, blood pressure drops, and the person faints.
"It's not something somebody just made up, it's not a weakness in character, it's a reflex," says Lamb, who dreads the needle, but doesn't suffer from a vasovagal reaction.
Fortunately, non-fainting needle phobes like Lamb may not have to wait long for science to find a physical rationale for their fear.
Researchers at Emory University in Atlanta actually mapped feelings associated with dread in the brain, using MRIs. In a paper published last May in the journal Science, the researchers told 34 volunteers how long they would have to wait for a foot shock — between five and 40 seconds — and then, actually shocked them with varying degrees of voltage.
A third of the participants — the extreme dreaders — reported that the shocks were more unpleasant when they had time to anticipate the pain, even if the same voltage was used. MRIs showed different brain activity between self-reported extreme dreaders and non-dreaders.
Lamb, who had knee surgery last week, says that his fear of needles would have posed a huge problem had it not been for a relatively new device called a pain patch.
"It's the ultimate conflict. I need the surgery, but I can't stand it," he says. But Lamb says his pain patch device — which uses a weak electric current to usher anesthetic gel into the skin without a needle — allowed him to forego traditional anesthetic injections.
Several such products are on the market — Numby Stuff, NeedleBuster and LidoSite are three examples. Lamb says he paid for his own NeedleBuster, and brought it with him to his knee surgery.
"I used it close to a dozen-and-a-half times in the past week," he notes.
But he says he believes the best way to avoid the inconvenience of needle phobia is for parents to deal with such problems in their children the first time they notice them.
In short, he suggests, don't restrain children, don't chastise them, and praise them after shots.
"You want the first exposures of that child to the medical industry to be the best ones, not the worst ones," Lamb says.