Taking the Ouch Out of Blood Tests

In the lab again to check on your rheumatoid arthritis? We've got six tips to make those blood draw easier.

by Lene Andersen, MSW Patient Advocate

Blood tests come early and often when you are diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (RA). As you work with your doctor to treat and monitor the disease, being on the receiving end of a needle can feel as much a part of your life as the pain and flares that come with the condition itself.

Giving a blood sample is usually pretty simple, but if you have a needle phobia, scar tissue from repeated sticks, or veins that roll away from the needle under pressure, showing up to the lab can be a frustrating or even scary prospect.

Why are so many blood tests required for RA? Once treatment begins, you’ll need to visit the lab regularly to check how active your RA is and to find out how your medication is working. And some RA drugs need to be monitored to stay ahead of possible side effects. Some tests measure general levels of inflammation in your body, while the Vectra blood test measures specific biomarkers that provide information about your RA’s activity status.

That's all fine and good, but how can you make your next blood draw less stressful? Follow this advice from a phlebotomist—the pro on the other end of the needle.

1. Get Distracted

If you’re nervous, say so. Your phlebotomist, like Brian Treu, CEO of Phlebotomy Training Specialists, which has locations in a number of U.S. cities, will have an arsenal of tips to help. These tricks include looking away while the test is being done (seeing the needle or the blood leaving your body can make some people feel woozy), lying down during the test, or listening to music. Moisturizing the skin before you leave home may reduce pain when the needle goes in and having someone—a friend or another phlebotomist—hold your (other) hand can make you feel better. If you are very anxious, ask if they have a distraction tool like the Buzzy. You apply the Buzzy to the injection site, where it cools and vibrates against your skin to distract your nerves (and you), so you don’t feel the needle going in.

2. Drink Water

Here's another great reason to drink more water—it can make a blood test easier. “Patients should come well hydrated,” Treu says. Drinking a few more glasses of water a day or two before your tests can make the blood flow more easily, especially if you chug a bit extra just before your test. If the blood test requires fasting or no liquids before your test, confirm whether this includes water.

3. Move Around to Improve Blood Flow

If you have a bit of a wait before your test, get up and move around. This can raise your blood pressure, which can make blood flow more easily. It’s also a good idea to throw on a sweater since your blood circulates better when you’re warm. While we’re on the topic of blood flow, making movement an everyday priority can help long-term. Doing hand and arm exercises on a regular basis can help make your veins more prominent and easier to find at future lab visits.

4. Ask for a Different Needle or Try a Different Body Part

Sometimes it can be a challenge to find a vein. The phlebotomist may try to adjust the tourniquet around your upper arm or “warm the site with a heat source, such as a warm compress,” Treu explains. Using a butterfly needle, which has winged tubing that gives it extra flexibility, may make it easier and less painful to find a vein, especially if yours are small. An infrared vein finder, a tool that shows the veins under the skin, can also help. Worried about scar tissue from years or even decades of tests making future needle sticks difficult? Don’t. Scarring plays less of a role in blood collection than you’d expect, says Treu. Talk to your phlebotomist about options for taking blood from other parts of your body, such as your forearm. The back of your hand is another possible site, but it can be more painful, so ask questions first.

5. Share Your Concerns With the Phlebotomist

If you’re looking to make a blood test easier, the best tool is your voice. Your experience as the person receiving the test is important, so use that to help future phlebotomists do the best job they can without guesswork. For instance, if you know the best location for a quick and pain-free stick, tell the phlebotomist before your test. Your experience might also have taught you that your veins are a bit small and it’s much easier for both of you if they use a butterfly needle. Every time you encounter a problem during a test and find a solution, make a note of it on your phone for future use.

6. If Your Phlebotomist Struggles, Ask for a Different One

If the person assigned to you is having trouble locating a vein, you have the right to ask for another person to do the blood test. In fact, Treu says, the industry standard is for a phlebotomist to have two tries to find a vein and, if unsuccessful, they will usually go and find another person to step in and try it. If you go to the same lab regularly and get to know someone who really knows how to find your veins, you can ask to see them. You might have to wait a little longer, but it can be worth it.

The best way to have an easy blood test is by being empowered to advocate for yourself. Even if blood tests don’t make you anxious, remember that you have the right to make this the best experience for you, whatever that means. That includes the right to ask questions, ask for another phlebotomist, stop a test already in process, and the right to go to another lab (just make sure it’s covered by your insurance).

Lene  Andersen, MSW
Meet Our Writer
Lene Andersen, MSW

Lene Andersen is an author, health and disability advocate, and photographer living in Toronto. Lene (pronounced Lena) has lived with rheumatoid arthritis since she was four years old and uses her experience to help others with chronic illness. She has written several books, including Your Life with Rheumatoid Arthritis: Tools for Managing Treatment, Side Effects and Pain, and 7 Facets: A Meditation on Pain, as well as the award-winning blog, The Seated View. Lene serves on HealthCentral's Health Advocates Advisory Board, and is a Social Ambassador for the RAHealthCentral on Facebook page, facebook.com/rahealthcentral. She is also one of HealthCentral's Live Bold, Live Now heroes — watch her incredible journey of living with RA.