Pain is subjective, we know. And getting poked and prodded is rarely fun. But certain medical procedures have a reputation for being extra-unpleasant and making even the most pain-tolerant patients cringe. Still, they serve a purpose—they may help pinpoint a tough diagnosis, improve your health, or possibly even save your life—so avoiding them isn’t the best plan.
On that note: We’re sticking to common procedures here—the kind you might be tempted to postpone. Getting a steel spike removed from your eye socket might be super painful, but you probably won’t ever have to deal with that (we hope). Invasive surgeries and grisly injuries aside, here are 9 infamously uncomfortable medical procedures and why it’s worth facing your fears.
If you have an abnormal Pap test or you test positive for human papillomavirus, your doctor may suggest a cervical biopsy to check for cervical cancer. Cervical biopsies take the discomfort of a Pap to the next level: Tissue is removed from your cervix using either a circular blade, laser, scalpel, or scraping tool called a curette. On the bright side, doctors often give a local or regional anesthetic to make the procedure more bearable. And early detection is key in treating cervical cancer, so it’s not a test you want to put off.
Most of us are accustomed to the quick pinch of getting blood drawn from a vein, but an arterial blood gas—which taps the artery in your wrist to measures the blood’s acidity and oxygen levels—is not a fan favorite. “Obtaining an ABG sample can be extremely painful for some patients…much more painful than a routine blood draw,” says Nesochi Okeke-Igbokwe, MD, an internist at NYU’s Langone Medical Center. However, it may be the best test to help your doctor diagnose conditions like kidney failure, heart failure, or lung disease.
Colonoscopies are performed to screen for colon cancer or pinpoint the cause of gastrointestinal issues like pain, bleeding, or chronic constipation or diarrhea. (This is what it’s like to get a colonoscopy.) Most patients need pain meds and/or a mild sedative to deal with the wholly unpleasant exam, during which a camera-equipped scope is inserted through your rectum and threaded to your colon. To make matters worse, the scope can get looped during this process, which is as painful as it sounds. But many patients say the most painful part is actually the prep, when you chug a colon-clearing laxative with, er, explosive results. But don’t skip the exam, even if you’re squeamish—according to the National Cancer Institute, regular colonoscopies can reduce your risk of dying from colorectal cancers by up to 70%.
The pain from an abscessed tooth can be brutal, but patients may tough it out longer than necessary because they’re terrified of the treatment. But a root canal is actually pretty simple—an endodontist removes the infected pulp of the tooth, then cleans and seals the area—and while it’s not terribly enjoyable, it’s an effective way to stop the infection, save the tooth, and end your misery.
If you get abnormal results from a blood test, your doctor may want to check your marrow (the spongy tissue in your bones) for blood disorders or certain types of cancer. There are two common ways to do it: An aspiration, which samples the fluid in your bone marrow, and a biopsy, which samples the tissue. Unfortunately, both involve a long, hollow needle being inserted into your hipbone. Your doctor will likely use a local anesthetic, but patients may still experience sharp pain.
Fortunately, anyone who’s thinking about a bone marrow donor can usually opt for a more comfortable route. While traditional marrow donation requires a process that’s similar to aspiration or biopsy, nowadays around 70% of donors can give peripheral blood stem cells instead (which isn’t much different from donating blood).
“Let’s face it, the mammogram is not a procedure women look forward to,” says Sherry Ross, MD, an ob-gyn and women’s health expert at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, CA. “It’s painful, makes you feel vulnerable, and often causes breast tenderness for days after.” But it’s still the most effective screening tool for breast cancer, so don’t skip your routine boob-squishing. Scheduling yours after your period (not before or during, when your breasts may already be sore) and popping some ibuprofen beforehand may help.
Most men cringe at the mere thought of this procedure, which kicks off with a local anesthetic being injected into the scrotum. Once the area is numb, the doctor makes a small puncture or incision, snips the vas deferens, and ties or cauterizes the loose ends. Luckily, this procedure has gotten easier in recent years: “Doing a vasectomy using the no-scalpel technique, which is virtually painless, helps alleviate a lot of this anxiety and discomfort,” says Philip Werthman, MD, urologist and director of the Center for Male Reproductive Medicine and Vasectomy Reversal in Los Angeles.
We’ll spare you the “pain scale goes to 11” jokes, but this test—formally known as a lumbar puncture—is a nightmare for needle-phobic patients. While the patient curls up in a fetal position to stretch the spine, a thin needle is inserted between two vertebrae to withdraw cerebrospinal fluid from the spinal canal. By evaluating the fluid, doctors can check for serious infections and certain types of cancer cells. The good news: A local anesthetic can numb the area, and for many patients, that initial sting is the worst part.
True, giving birth isn’t exactly a “procedure”—but it’s an unpredictable event that may involve an epidural injection, an episiotomy, or C-section surgery. And even when everything goes according to plan, childbirth is generally the barometer by which all other pain is measured. The good news is that once you’ve done it, none of the above-mentioned procedures should seem especially scary.
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