Research Communications

Turning first-time blood donors into loyal givers 

February 2008

With a squeezable rubber ball in his left hand and a blinking light in his right, Kevin, an Ohio University sophomore, sat calmly, his stomach full from a bottle of water he’d just consumed. Monitored by a sensor strapped to his ankle, he slowly raised and lowered his leg when commanded by the light. Though a first-time blood donor, Kevin appeared to be unfazed by the experience.

Kevin and 19 other people were participants in a study by Ohio University Professor of Psychology Chris France that aims to make novice blood donors become loyal givers. Funded by a four-year, $1.6 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, France’s research is especially important given constant blood shortages, which seem to be heightening as a result of the aging U.S. population’s need for medical care, France said. Recruiting young donors – and getting them to return – is crucial.


At a recent Red Cross blood drive in Porter Hall, France collected data on physical techniques that may lessen the negative side effects occasionally experienced by first-time blood donors, such as dizziness and weakness. The changes – drinking water before donation coupled with muscle-tensing leg exercises during donation – are easy and inexpensive tactics to apply, France said.

The goals of this study are to first reduce the negative reactions at the time of blood donation for 400 novice donors and then track them for two years after the donation to see how likely they are to come back and give again.

Once participants have passed a Red Cross health screening and are approved to donate blood, they are given more information about the study and are randomly put into one of four groups.

One group participates in hydration only, another performs hydration and muscle tension, one will perform the muscle tensing before giving blood and the last will serve as a control with no treatment. They fill out questionnaires concerning their mental and physical states and confidence in the treatment they are testing.

In the hydration, or fluid loading, groups, the donors consume 500 milliliters of water (about 16 ounces) 20 to 30 minutes before they start donating.

“In previous studies, fluid loading on its own has been shown to effectively lower responses such as dizziness and weakness,” France said. He attributes this to fluid loading’s effect on blood pressure.

When people give blood, anxiety can raise their blood pressure. After donation, their blood pressure drops because they have just lost a half liter of blood and also may experience the unpleasant rush produced by quickly standing up after sitting, he explains.

“Drinking water 20 to 30 minutes before blood donation creates an increase in blood pressure, which may be related to the stomach stretching,” France said. “This increase helps combat the drop in blood pressure after donation and the feelings of faintness or dizziness.”

The other method tested is one type of applied muscle tension that involves donors alternatively lifting each leg about 12 inches off their chair while giving blood, prompted by a hand-held device that lights up every 10 seconds. This action also attempts to prevent the blood pressure drop in the donor by keeping the blood pumping.

In addition to its positive impact on blood pressure, the process of applied muscle tension also could serve as a distraction and psychologically aid the person. France’s other studies on blood donation look into reducing the anxiety of the blood donor by providing distraction or information to new donors earlier in the process.

France recruits participants on the Ohio University campus and in Columbus. So far, about 300 people have enrolled in the study and have given blood. The study began in February 2006, and France hopes to have the first stage of the research done by the end of this academic year. The professor works in conjunction with the Columbus-based American Red Cross, Central Ohio Blood Services and fellow Ohio University researchers Janis France and Bruce Carlson.

As for blood donor Kevin, he reported that his first donation experience was positive and reaction-free. As he sat snacking on some Red Cross treats while filling out the study’s post-questionnaire, he said there’s a good chance he’ll donate again.

By Deanna Kerslake