Getting buzzy: reducing the pain of shots
My son Max never had problems with shots. At least that’s what I thought.
At his 4-year-old visit, I thought he handled the barrage of vaccines fine…but upon leaving the office, he vomited from the stress. Since I research needle pain prevention, I felt dumb for not putting on numbing cream. Yet when I did apply the cream for a subsequent visit, the nurse perversely aimed away from the numb area. “That stuff doesn’t work anyway,” she announced. Furious, I started trying to figure out how to outwit the nursing staff next time.
I wanted something I could bring myself that would reduce the pain and stress of getting a shot, something wouldn’t disrupt the office flow or risk the nurses’ wrath. I began to experiment with different methods on my own three young children. First, I knew that nerves could naturally block pain. For example, putting a burned hand under running water makes it feel better…but how could I use that knowledge? After many fruitless, wet disasters, it occurred to me that vibration was sort of like the feeling of running water, and vibration also helps reduce pain through a mechanism called gate control. This is why rubbing a bumped elbow or shaking a smashed finger dulls the pain—vibration should work!
It didn’t work so well. When I tried a pocket massager on the kids by itself, poking them with a medical pokey wheel still hurt. Inspired, my husband brought me frozen peas to put under the vibrator. Bingo! I could press hard enough to leave marks and they felt nothing. Thus “Buzzy” was born.
Then, the work started.
First, I borrowed cell phones from neighbors to find out what made them vibrate. After we harvested enough motors, I made prototypes. First I used the cases from old phones, then I worked with the local engineering school to make something more medical-looking. I found a local design firm to run the basic designs through a “stereolithography,” or SLA rapid prototyping machine. This machine uses lasers and resin to create a hard prototype layer by layer. So cool!
Finally, in December 2008, I had the first plastic, lead-free, cutie pie Buzzy staring back at me from a package. It was simple to use. You put on an ice pack, stick Buzzy on the skin where the shot will go for a few seconds, then move it a little above the site and leave it vibrating in place during the poke. Voila! My friend’s son used it and felt no pain for a flu shot. Another friend’s child with newly diagnosed diabetes used Buzzy all the time at first, though it seems now just knowing she can dull the pain makes her not need it.
Since those early days, we’ve sold 34,000 Buzzies by word of mouth, and Buzzy will soon be used in big national labs to help improve IV access and decrease pain. I still can’t completely get rid of infants’ pain, which nags at me, and people now use Buzzy more for splinters, aches and pains than shots. Still, the fact that an idea grew into something that actually works is hugely satisfying.
When I first had the idea, I felt I was groping forward in the dark with no illumination—I felt ready to fall or be taken advantage of at every step. Looking back, the path options were more numerous and the pitfalls less deep than it seemed at the time. There are many people happy to help, grants to be had, and if something can help enough people, it’s worth going for it!