Old Sparky! Needlephobia, Nerve Conduction Tests, and
I felt queasy contemplating the nerve conduction test and
electromyelogram (EMG) I was about to have. The nerve conduction
test involves taping electrodes to the skin and sending a small
jolt of electric current to them. During the EMG, the doctor
inserts tiny needles into various muscles and examines the
signals displayed on a laptop screen to see how quickly they
respond to stimulation. These tests help to determine if there's
any nerve impairment or damage. Now, I'm in no position to
belittle anyone else's phobias, but I must confess to feeling a
bit resentful - they'll give Valium to claustrophobic patients
before a non-invasive MRI, but they just laugh when I suggest
they might want to sedate needlephobic me prior to an EMG. "Oh,
it's not that bad," they tell me.
I finally confessed to my husband just how apprehensive I was
feeling, and suggested that if he felt inclined to come along
and hold my hand, I wouldn't object. He had another appointment
across town, but promised he'd do his best to make it back in
time to provide moral support. Unfortunately, I got to the
doctor's office a little early, and they took me back right on
schedule! How often does that happen?
The nurse asked me to don a hospital gown, assured me that the
test "wasn't that bad," then checked to see if my hand was warm.
Warm? Fear doesn't lead to warm hands. Fear leads to hands that
are cold as a corpse. So for five minutes before the test, I had
to soak my hand in a tub of hot water! I started to get chills
throughout the rest of my body, but at least my hand was warm.
The doctor was pleasant and had a good sense of humor. He tried
to distract me with soft music and laughter as I tried to
explain to him how much more effective nitrous oxide might be.
Meanwhile, the nurse was taping electrodes to various points on
my arm and hand.
Zap! My fingers curled reflexively and my whole body responded
with a sympathetic convulsion like a freshly-caught fish gasping
for air. From the very first time I grabbed hold of one of those
gags that delivers a shocking sensation when all you're
expecting is a friendly handshake, I've been a little leery of
electric currents running through my body. It's not exactly
"painful," but it's not a sensation I'd seek out for kicks. The
dastardly duo repeated this procedure several times, moving and
re-taping the electrodes to vary the twitching in my arm and
fingers. The good news? My results were "normal." In layman's
terms, I guess a "normal" result is something in between my
whole arm laying still as a dead mackerel and my hand curling up
in a fist and punching the doctor in the nose. Don't think it
didn't cross my mind. It would've been purely reflexive, mind
you. Nothing personal.
The bad news? Since the results were normal, we got to go on to
the EMG. If the results had clearly shown a problem, we might
have been able to skip the next part. And to think I tried so
hard to pass the first test!
Okay, so now I'm hyperventilating and the doctor is telling me
to breathe. "Breathe?" I think. Sounds like some exotic foreign
word. Oh, right, BREATHE. He sticks the first needle in. I
whimper a little and start to tear up. I'm acting like a
two-year-old. Objectively speaking, it doesn't hurt all that
much. No big deal. I'm cool. Oh, yeah - gotta remember to
The doctor finishes with the first probe and inserts the second.
I can't remember now whether it was the second or third - but
the one on the inside of my forearm hurt like, well, my mother
says that's unprintable. It hurt. Twelve hours later, it still
I find I can't breathe and talk at the same time. While he's
moving the needle around in my arm, the doctor asks, "How old
are your kids?"
"Kids?" I have kids? "I don't know," I whimper, my voice
barely audible. I don't care, either. Just move the damned
needle! "Twelve? Five? Something like that..."
"What's your favorite radio station?" he asks.
"Oldies?" I gasp. Why do doctors always ask inane questions
during unpleasant procedures?
"Okay, lift your right hand." I comply. Anything to get this
over with. "Now, move it around--" I move it around. "--see if
you can pick up the Oldies station!"
I start to laugh hysterically. And cry. "You are a funny man,
but I hate you, you know."
"Almost through, and you'll be cured of your fear of needles.
Think of this as therapy!"
I'm thinking "go to hell," and worse, but I just smile
miserably. Soon we're down to the last needle, the one he's
going to insert in my neck. He starts prepping the area with
alcohol, then presses on the vertebrae one by one with his
"Oh wait, please, stop - don't touch me!" I turn over in a
panic. The doctor assures me he's going to insert the needle in
the muscle tissue, not the spinal cord. I know that. But when
you're needlephobic, a needle you can't see, anywhere near your
spine, is twenty-five feet long and has sharp, rusty teeth.
"We can stop right now if you want to." His voice is
sympathetic. No more jokes. Oh, sure I wanted to stop, but then
we'd either have incomplete results and an uncooperative patient
on record, or I'd just have to muster the courage to come back
and finish the blasted test.
"No, just do it and get it over with," I mutter. I focus on
trying to bite through my own lip as he slips the needle into my
neck. I feel like the world's biggest chicken.
Looking back on this whole ordeal, the probe in my neck is the
one that hurt the least. I hardly felt it. And within a minute,
we were done. The doctor informed me that I had some nerve
compression and damage from the pressure in my neck, but no
carpal tunnel syndrome. "Consistent with what the MRI showed,"
"So, if the MRI showed it, then why did we just go through all
this?" I asked. He explained that the MRI showed pressure on the
nerve root, but didn't show if there was nerve damage or the
extent of it. As for the needlephobia, he pronounced me "cured."
"Uh, no, I don't think so," I said.
"Nurse!" he called down the hall. "Schedule her for another
'therapy' session next week!"
"Okay, okay - I'll lie. I'm cured. Hallelujah! You're a miracle
worker!" He smiled. I thanked him. I told him in no uncertain
terms that while I thought he was a very nice, funny man and a
good doctor, I hoped I never had to see him again.
Just as I was sitting up, getting ready to slip out of the gown
and back into my t-shirt, my husband showed up. "In time to pick
up the pieces," as he put it. Does the man have good timing, or
what? Just as well, I figured - he did show up in time to take
me to a nice lunch (we hadn't had a date in - how long?) and
graciously listened to me whine about it all over again. I
couldn't very well have done that if he'd been there to witness
it with his own eyes, now could I?