May 17, 2009

scaring yourself to death

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, riffing, once said that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. On a related note, NewScientist's Helen Pilcher tackles a fascinating topic: the deadly nocebo.
The placebo effect has an evil twin: the nocebo effect, in which dummy pills and negative expectations can produce harmful effects. The term "nocebo", which means "I will harm", was not coined until the 1960s, and the phenomenon has been far less studied than the placebo effect. It's not easy, after all, to get ethical approval for studies designed to make people feel worse.

What we do know suggests the impact of nocebo is far-reaching. "Voodoo death, if it exists, may represent an extreme form of the nocebo phenomenon," says anthropologist Robert Hahn of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia, who has studied the nocebo effect.

In clinical trials, around a quarter of patients in control groups - those given supposedly inert therapies - experience negative side effects. The severity of these side effects sometimes matches those associated with real drugs. A retrospective study of 15 trials involving thousands of patients prescribed either beta blockers or a control showed that both groups reported comparable levels of side effects, including fatigue, depressive symptoms and sexual dysfunction. A similar number had to withdraw from the studies because of them.
The effect is played out in "anticipatory nauseau," "mass psychogenic illness," and who knows what other maladies. By now, someone you know has probably already contracted sympathetic swine flu.

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