When fear leads to real complaints

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Media reports on health risks can trigger fear and real complaints

Media reports about dangerous substances or harmful radiation appear again and again. For some people, this not only triggers fear but also real complaints. A German researcher examined the so-called nocebo effect during a research stay in England. His conclusion: "Science and the media should work more closely together and report on topics such as health risks as truthfully as possible".

Just expecting harm can cause fear and real discomfort
Countless reports of deadly viruses, rare deadly diseases and health-endangering electrosmog are haunted by the media. Although many lack a scientific basis, the sometimes very lurid reports trigger fears. For some people, fear even goes so far as to develop real complaints. Experts speak of the so-called nocebo effect, which has the opposite effect like the placebo effect. While the latter has positive effects despite drug-free drugs, people with the nocebo effect suffer from symptoms of the disease, although there is no actual health risk. Media reports, for example, on cell phone radiation alone are sufficient to cause symptoms such as headaches and nausea in those affected.

The German scientist Dr. Michael Witthöft from the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz examined the phenomenon of electromagnetic hypersensitivity together with his colleague G. James Rubin during a research stay at King’s College in London. Using magnetic resonance imaging, the researchers were able to recognize that "the pain-processing regions in the brain of those affected were actually activated even though there was no real radiation". Witthöft and Rubin came to the conclusion that "the expectation of damage alone can trigger pain and other complaints".

Subjects with real complaints although there were actually no risks
As part of the study, a group of a total of 147 subjects was shown a report that reported on the health risks of WLAN and mobile radio signals. The other group saw a report on the topic of security of Internet and cell phone data. Afterwards, all study participants were pretended to be exposed to a WLAN signal for 15 minutes. 54 percent of the subjects subsequently reported complaints such as a feeling of oppression, difficulty concentrating and anxiety. Especially the subjects who had previously seen the report on the health risks of WLAN signals showed symptoms most often. In two test subjects, the test had to be stopped even though there was actually no radiation.

The tests had shown that those affected could not differentiate "whether they are actually exposed to electromagnetic fields and that their symptoms can be triggered by sham exposure as well as by real radiation," reports Witthöft.

The investigation by Witthöft and Rubin has shown the influence lurid media reports have on many people. The suggestion of health risks alone is enough to cause real complaints in some people. Witthöft therefore calls for closer cooperation between scientists and media makers. Reports of health risks should be as truthful as possible and "made public to the best of our knowledge".

The nocebo effect was first observed in drug trials in which the subjects showed side effects despite receiving a placebo. (ag)

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