How to Give Yourself an Insulin Injection

Needle-phobic? No sweat. With practice, you can handle these shots with minimal stress.

How to Give Yourself an Insulin Injection

Medically reviewed in September 2021

It’s natural to feel anxious about giving yourself insulin injections, particularly if you’re not a fan of needles. But keep in mind: Insulin is injected into the layer of fat below the skin—what’s known as “subcutaneous” tissue—where there are no nerve endings. Plus, these days, syringes and pen needles are designed in such a way that most people feel no pain at all.

Here’s what you need to know to handle this aspect of your diabetes management with a minimum of stress.

Practice makes perfect
A syringe is the most common way to give yourself an insulin injection, but it’s not the only one. Many people use insulin pens or pumps.

Like a syringe, a pen delivers insulin through a needle. A pump relies on a catheter, placed under the skin, to get the job done. There are pros and cons to each. Your healthcare provider (HCP) will help you determine which one is best for you.

A member of your healthcare team—whether it’s your doctor, nurse, or certified diabetes care and education specialist—will also walk you through the steps and be there with you when you’re ready to try it for the first time. If you decide to use a syringe, consider practicing by injecting a saline- or water-filled syringe into an orange or a rolled-up washcloth to help you get a feel for the process.

Choosing an injection site
Where you inject insulin makes a difference, since insulin enters the blood at different speeds depending on the location. For example, insulin shots in the abdomen generally work fastest. By comparison, shots given in the back of the upper arms, outer thighs, upper part of the buttocks, or other areas where the body has accumulated fat typically work more slowly. This is because fat can slow down the absorption of insulin. Skin thickness and subcutaneous blood supply—blood supply under the skin—factor into absorption speed, as well.

Using different injection sites for different types of insulin can be helpful. As always, consult with your HCP or diabetes educator on the best method for you.

Since insulin is meant to be delivered into the fat layer just under the skin, it’s important to pick a site that you can see and reach. To help ensure that the insulin reaches your blood at about the same speed each time you give yourself a shot, stick with the same general area of your body—but not the same spot. If you inject in the exact same place each time, hard lumps or extra fatty deposits may develop. These deposits can delay insulin absorption and reduce the amount of insulin available to the body.

Staying within the same area but injecting into different spots is known as “rotating” injection sites. Say, for instance, you inject four times a day and all the injections are in your abdomen. Here’s one way to make site rotation work there:

  • Imagine the face of an old-fashioned clock on the right or left side of your abdomen.
  • Pick a 12 o’clock point to orient yourself.
  • Your first injection would be made at the 12 o’clock spot, your second injection at 1 o’clock, the third at 2 o’clock and the fourth at 3 o’clock.

Rotating sites like these means you won’t return to 12 o’clock for three days if you were to use one side of your abdomen, or six days if you were to switch sides. Either decision would give enough time for that spot to recover before you use it again.

A few other tips to remember: Try to stay at least 1 inch between injection sites and if you inject into your abdomen, aim at least a couple inches away from your navel and at least 1 inch or so away from your beltline.

Wherever you choose to inject insulin, you’ll want to steer clear of moles and scars as well as any areas of your skin with swelling, inflammation, or unusual changes in texture.

Needle know-how
After you’ve picked an injection site, make sure the skin is clean—washing with regular soap and water will do—and dry. It’s generally not recommended to use alcohol to clean the area.

Then follow these steps:

  1. Pinch a 1- to 2-inch portion of skin and fat between your thumb and first finger.
  2. With your other hand, hold the syringe or pen at a 90-degree angle (perpendicular) to the skin and insert the needle with one quick motion. Make sure the needle is all the way in the pinched portion of the skin.
  3. Let go of the skin pinch, then inject the insulin. Push the plunger with your thumb at a moderate, steady pace until the insulin is fully injected. If using a syringe, keep the needle in the skin for 5 seconds. Keep it in for 10 seconds if you’re using a pen.
  4. Remove the needle at the same 90-degree angle. Press the injection site with your finger for 5 to 10 seconds to keep insulin from leaking out.
  5. If you’re using a pen, remove the needle by replacing the large cover and unscrewing the cap. Leaving the needle on the pen can result in leakage or air bubbles.

Trash your sharps responsibly
You might be tempted to toss your used needles, syringes, and lancets (known as “sharps”) into the trash or flush them down the toilet. Here’s why you shouldn’t: Doing so puts others at risk, since anyone who comes in contact with a used sharp is in danger of an accidental needlestick.

Instead, place your sharps in a dedicated sharps container or something puncture-proof, like an empty laundry detergent jug or fabric softener bottle. Store it out of reach of children and pets until it’s about three-quarters full. Then, close the container tightly with a screw-on cap and dispose of it.

Where, exactly, you throw it away depends on where you live. Different communities have different rules for handling medical waste. Check with your local department of sanitation for details.

Away from home? Use an old test strip bottle or empty prescription bottle to hold your used sharps until you get home and can dispose of them safely.

Sources:

American Association of Diabetes Educators. “Insulin Injection Know-how: Understanding Insulin.” 2021. Accessed June 4, 2021.
D Kruger, S LaRue S, P Estepa. “Recognition of and steps to mitigate anxiety and fear of pain in injectable diabetes treatment.” Diabetes Metabolic Syndrome and Obesity. Jan 16, 2015. 8:49-56.
American Diabetes Association. “Insulin Routines.” 2021. Accessed June 4, 2021.
A Gradel, T Porsgaard, et al. “Factors Affecting the Absorption of Subcutaneously Administered Insulin: Effect on Variability.” Journal of Diabetes Research. July 2018. 8:6-7.
American Association of Diabetes Educators. “Insulin Injection Know-how: Pro Tips (and Tricks) for Easier and Better Insulin Injections.” 2020. Accessed June 4, 2021.
American Association of Diabetes Educators. “Insulin Injection Know-how: Learning How To Inject Insulin.” 2020. Accessed June 4, 2021.
MedlinePlus.com. “Giving an insulin injection.” August 29, 2020. Accessed June 23, 2021.
AKJ Gradel, NR Kristensen, et al. “Factors Affecting the Absorption of Subcutaneously Administered Insulin: Effect on Variability.” Journal of Diabetes Research. July 2018. 1205121.
U.S. Food & Drug Administration. “Sharps Disposal Containers.” April 28, 2021. Accessed September 15, 2021.

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