While intramuscular administration of Testosterone has been shown to be a very effective delivery method for trans men, research suggests that 40% of those who received IM injections described it as very painful. (Najafidolatabad, 2010.)
Are there ways to reduce the pain associated with IM Testosterone injections? A Google search or Facebook post will yield all kinds of conflicting information. This review of scientific studies sets the record straight on minimizing post-injection pain from IM injections.
To minimize post-injection pain, several important factors need to first be considered:
- Injection site
- Needle length, gauge, and “switching up”
- Volume of injection
- Injection technique, including speed of injection
- Massage and manual pressure
With IM injections, Testosterone is deposited deeply into vascular muscle tissue. The deltoid (arm), vastus lateralis (thigh), and gluteal muscles (hip/buttocks) are the most common sites for IM injections.
Some injection sites are more prone to pain than others. Areas of the body with less subcutaneous fat are generally less painful injection sites.
The ventrogluteal site has less subcutaneous tissue and a thicker muscle mass than the dorsogluteal site. Therefore, the needle has a better chance of reaching the muscular tissue in the ventrogluteal area than in the dorsogluteal area. In various studies it was found that most injections given to the dorsogluteal site delivered medication into the fatty tissue. Pain receptors are found within the subcutaneous layer, not in muscle tissues and so injections administered into subcutaneous tissue may be more painful. (Güneş, 2013.)
Rotating injection sites is a must! Give an injection site a week or two off before injecting there again. This helps to limit injection site reactions and the formation of scar tissue.
It has been found that necrosis of the muscle will occur after any IM injection no matter what medication is injected. The only variable is the size of the necrotic lesion and the severity of it. Forceful placement of a volume of fluid into a closed space will cause damage. In other words, the surrounding muscle and tissues in the immediate area of the needle tip are subjected to the pressure of the mass of fluid that has been instilled into the area, which causes pressure necrosis. The toxicity of the medication, the volume injected, and even the speed at which the injection is given also will influence the size of the necrotic lesion. (Treadwell, 2003)
Needle Length, Gauge and “Switching Up”
The needle used to inject should be long enough to penetrate through the subcutaneous tissue into the muscle mass, or the patient will have more pain. (Güneş, 2013.) The typical needle gauge used to inject testosterone is between 22 and 25. It would stand to reason that using a smaller gauge needle would reduce injection pain, but researchers have disagreed on this on this point. (Gill, 2007 and Flanagan, 2007.)
Just Say No to Blunts! Trans men are commonly advised to use one needle for drawing up, discard it, and then “switch up” to a higher gauge needle for injection. Here’s why:
It’s not hard to imagine that the duller tip of the needle would cause more pain, but again, studies have not unanimously concluded that this is the case (Rock, 2000 and Ağaç, 2011.)
Volume of Injection
The volume of injection can contribute to post-injection pain. Smaller, more frequent injections are likely to cause less pain than larger injections administered bi-weekly (or every few months in the case of long acting T. preparations like Nebido.)
Injection technique is another consideration when evaluating post-injection pain, but research in this area is also conflicting. In one study, the Air-lock (AL) injection technique was found to be more effective at reducing pain caused by IM injection versus the Z-track (ZT) method (Najafidolatabad, 2010.) Earlier studies also found AL was a better method for avoiding seepage of the medication, which is associated with lower absorption and pain (Quartermaine, 1995 and Mac Gabhann 1998.) On the other hand, other studies from the ’80s found the opposite to be true, that Z-track is associated with less post-injection pain (Keen, 1986 and Kim, 1988.)
Katsma and Smith (1997) suggested that the potential for pain with IM injections is due to the kinematics of injections (the movement of the needle through muscle and tissue) and concluded that, “minimizing of this effect is accomplished by controlling the needle trajectory during penetration along a linear path from point of contact to end point.” In other words, the needle should go straight in, with no deviations in its path.
Does injection speed play a role in post-injection pain? Again, it’s hard to say: two studies concluded that injection speed was not a factor (Mitchell, 2001 and Chan, 2001) while a more recent study showed that faster injections induced less pain in babies (Lundberg, 2008.)
To Massage or Not to Massage?
There are different injection protocols for different medications, so advice you find online about this may or may not apply to your Testosterone injection. For example, with the IM injection of vaccines, massaging the site of injection is highly discouraged as it can push the medication into the subcutaneous layer, reducing effectiveness and potentially causing irritation.
Given that subcutaneous administration of Testosterone has been proven effective why would the migration of T. into the subcutaneous layer be problematic? Because pain receptors are in the subcutaneous layer not in muscle tissue (Güneş, 2013.) Massaging the injection site can push the T. into the subcutaneous layer where there is greater sensitivity to pain.
Discussions on nursing forums, as well as journal articles, indicate that massaging the injection site is an out-of-date technique (Beyea, 1995.) Indeed, the Australian Immunisation Handbook, a critical nursing reference now in its 10th edition, had advised against rubbing IM injection sites, and the recommendation to “gently apply pressure for 1 or 2 minutes” post-injection does not appear in the latest edition.
“Oh people can come up with statistics to prove anything, Kent. Forty percent of all people know that.” – Homer Simpson
However, the findings of a 2001 study indicated that massage was effective in reducing pain perception of adult patients after the administration of an intramuscular injection.
Even with evidenced-based research, it’s hard to know what’s actually true!
What about applying pressure before an injection? A 1996 study found that this lessened post-injection pain. Subjects in a 2002 study reported also lower pain intensity scores with manual pressure applied before injections, suggesting that this could be an effective means of decreasing post-injection pain (Chung, 2002.)
With the science out of the way, let’s get down to the practical things you can do to improve your IM injection experience!
10 Tips to Reduce IM Injection Pain (YMMV)
1. Find injection sites that work for you (“sweet spots”) and rotate them. The deltoid (arm), vastus lateralis (thigh), and ventrogluteal (hip/butt) muscles are acceptable sites for IM injections. The common dorsogluteal injection site is no longer recommended. (Doing T shots in your butt? Read this.)
2. Choose your gear wisely. Use a needle that is long enough to penetrate deep into the muscle. Use a larger gauge needle for drawing up, then switch to a smaller gauge needle to inject.
3. Shorten your cycle. If you’re injecting every 14 days, you might try moving to a 7 day cycle to see if injecting the smaller volume helps minimize pain.
4. Re-visit your injection technique. Air-lock or Z-track? Are you injecting straight in or does the trajectory of the needle shift during injection? Fast or slow? Small tweaks to your technique might provide big wins in reducing post-injection pain.
5. Warm up and relax. Have a hot shower or bath before your injection to warm up the injection site. While injecting, keep the muscle relaxed (and unflexed.)
6. Warm up your T. too! Hold the vial in a closed fist for a couple of minutes, run it under hot water or place it on a baseboard heater for a minute to warm the T. to room temperature or a little higher. Warm oil in a warm muscle will produce less pain than cold oil in a cold muscle!
7. After sterilizing the injection site with alcohol, let the skin dry. Penetrating the skin with the needle before the alcohol has evaporated can cause a stinging pain sensation.
8. Apply manual pressure to the injection site for 10 seconds before your injection. Be sure to maintain sterility!
9. After your injection, reduce pain and swelling by applying topical Arnica gel or cream, and then ice the injection site.
10. Some people swear by it, so massage the site after injection if you think it helps!
Pain after an IM Testosterone injection is very common but there are numerous things you can do to minimize and even eliminate post-injection pain. In the end, every body is different and what works for one guy may not work so well for another. So, knowing that science doesn’t have all the answers yet, just do what works for YOU to maintain pain-free injections!
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