Coping with Test Pain, Discomfort and Anxiety

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Nobody particularly enjoys having blood drawn or providing a urine or stool sample, but a laboratory test conducted on a sample collected from your body can give your health care provider important information that can help improve or maintain your health. A health care practitioner uses lab tests for a variety of reasons, including screening for and diagnosing conditions and to guide treatment and determine prognosis.

Sometimes, undergoing an unfamiliar medical procedure can turn out to be a tense, upsetting, or even frightening experience. If undergoing medical tests makes you or someone you care for anxious, embarrassed, or fearful, read this article for some general tips on how to make the sample collection experience less stressful.

General Tips

Know What to Expect

Undergoing an unfamiliar medical procedure can be stressful when your experience does not match your expectations. Knowing what will happen is a good way to maintain composure.

Understanding why a lab test has been ordered can improve your attitude and preparation for the test. Being well prepared also helps you feel more relaxed and in control of the situation. Ask your health care practitioner to explain the reasons for your test, how the test will be conducted, and what he or she expects to learn from it. Here are some questions to ask:

  • Why does this test need to be done? How could it change the course of my care?
  • What do I need to know or do before the test?
  • What happens during and after the test?
  • How much will the test hurt or be an inconvenience? What are its risks?
  • How long will the test take? When will results be available?
  • Where do I need to go to take the test? Is there a “good” time to schedule the test?
  • What are normal results? What do abnormal results mean?
  • What factors may affect the results?
  • What course of action may be next, after the test?

Your health care provider is the best person to look to for answers to these questions since he or she will be most familiar with your situation. Of course, time constraints, your comfort in asking questions, and simply forgetting to ask a certain question sometimes compel patients to look elsewhere for this information. Fortunately, there are other reliable sources to turn to for additional information:

  • The medical laboratory scientist, technician, or phlebotomist [see the article Who’s Who in the Lab] can answer questions about how the sample is collected. This person may not, however, have the information needed to fully answer your questions about what the test is for, how results are interpreted, and what happens next. Because many patients ask these questions during the sampling procedure, some facilities have books or pamphlets on medical testing available as a resource to staff and patients so do not hesitate to ask about the resources available to you.
  • Other information sources, such as this web site, are available online, as are a number of free services. One such service is the Consumer Information Response Service provided by ASCLS, one of the laboratory associations in partnership with Through this service, you can obtain answers to your lab test-related questions from laboratory professionals. You can access this service through the Ask a Laboratory Scientist form.
  • The following are resources that provide information on how to evaluate a health web site to determine if it can be trusted:

Try Relaxation Techniques

Knowing a few simple relaxation and focusing techniques can help you avoid tensing your muscles or becoming faint during any difficult medical procedure. Although the medical staff performing these procedures are usually good at making small talk and creating distractions that take your mind off your discomfort, you can also soothe yourself or an anxious patient with the following techniques. If you are anxious about lab tests and need them frequently, you will find it helpful to practice these skills at home to make them even more effective when you need them.

Breathe — Take three slow breaths, counting to three for each one and breathing through your nose. Breathe out through your mouth, counting to six. Push your stomach out as you breathe in (to breathe more deeply). Slow down if you start to feel lightheaded.

Relax Your Muscles — Consciously relax your muscles. Let them feel loose.

Focus — Find a focal point to look at or envision a pleasing image.

Count — Count slowly and silently to ten.

Talk — Chat with someone in the room. The distraction can relax you.

Anyone who suffers from high anxiety about medical tests should talk with a healthcare practitioner. The healthcare provider may recommend a mental health professional who can help you with these feelings, especially if your anxiety is severe or prevents you from obtaining treatment, or the practitioner may prescribe medicine to help you relax. Many anti-nausea medications, for example, decrease anxiety as a natural side effect.

Communicate Your Needs

Many of the laboratory tests ordered today are less invasive and more comfortable than the tests they have replaced, and a variety of specimen collection equipment has also been designed with patient comfort in mind.

Don’t hesitate to request a modification or a different approach that better suits your needs. For example, if you have felt light-headed or have fainted previously while having your blood drawn, ask to be allowed to lie down for the procedure. You can expect that the health professionals responsible for collecting the sample have been trained to be sensitive to the needs of apprehensive patients and people with special needs. They have some proven strategies to help you and are usually willing to listen to you to determine what will work best in a situation.

Understanding what will happen, communicating your needs to the health professionals assisting you, and employing simple relaxation techniques will help you be most comfortable and prepared for a lab test.

View Sources

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Caregiving: A Step-By-Step Resource for Caring for the Person with Cancer at Home. Houts PS and Bucher JA, eds. American Cancer Society, 2000:233-240.

About Site on Mental Health Resources. Available online at Accessed May 2001.

Thompson, ED. Introduction to Maternity and Pediatric Nursing. 2nd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: W.B. Saunders Company, 1995:577.

Dr See the articles on test/procedure preparation for infants, toddlers, preschoolers, and adolescents. Available online through Accessed June 2001.

American Medical Association Family Medical Guide. 3rd ed. Clayman CB, ed. New York: Random House, Inc., 1994:767.

Rob C, Reynolds J. The Caregiver’s Guide: Helping Elderly Relatives Cope with Health and Safety Problems. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1991.

Interviews (professional titles and positions are listed as they were at the time of the interviews)

Rebecca Elon, MD, MPH, Medical Director of North Arundel Senior Care, Severna Park, Maryland.

Joy Goldberger, MS, CCLS, Education Coordinator, Child Life Department, Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, Baltimore, Maryland.

Saralynn Pruett, MT (ASCP), Phlebotomy Supervisor, Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology, Mayo Foundation, Rochester, Minnesota.

Karen Szafran, CPNP, nurse practitioner, pediatric practice, Alexandria, Virginia.

Myra Daly, PT (ASCP), Phlebotomy Supervisor, Northwest Community Healthcare, Arlington Heights, Illinois.

Joan Kosiek, MT(ASCP)SH, point-of-care consultant, Northwest Community Healthcare, Arlington Heights, Illinois.

Richard Flaherty, Executive Vice-President, American Association for Clinical Chemistry, Washington, District of Columbia.