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Health news reports may spur 'symptoms' in some people

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By Amy Norton
HealthDay Reporter

TUESDAY, May 28 (HealthDay News) -- The news media and the mind may have a powerful role in people's experience of so-called "Wi-Fi syndrome," if a new study is correct.

Researchers found that when they showed people a news report on the purported health risks of Wi-Fi, some of them suddenly developed symptoms when they were later exposed to a Wi-Fi signal. Except that "signal" wasn't real.

The findings, researchers say, point to the power of the media and the power of the "nocebo effect" -- where your worries over ill health effects actually make you feel sick. It's the negative version of the storied placebo effect, which causes you to feel better because you expect good things from a therapy.

"Our study represents the first to demonstrate that sensational and one-sided media reports might be able to amplify the nocebo effect in this particular form of environmental intolerance," said lead researcher Michael Witthoft, with the psychology department at Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz, in Germany.

"Environmental intolerance" refers to symptoms that people develop in reaction to chemicals or other exposures in their daily surroundings. Witthoft's study zeroed in on one: electromagnetic fields (EMFs) -- which include the radio waves given off by cell phones and Wi-Fi networks.

There is little evidence that those fields pose a cancer risk, or have other health effects. Still, some people report suffering symptoms, like headaches, tingling sensations, nausea and concentration problems, that they attribute to electromagnetic field exposure.

Witthoft's team studied the phenomenon by recruiting 147 adults and randomly assigning them to watch one of two BBC news reports: one on the potential health effects of Wi-Fi, or another on the security of Internet and cellphone data.

Afterward, volunteers sat in a room with a laptop, where they believed they were being exposed to a Wi-Fi signal -- when, in fact, they were not. Yet 54 percent of the study participants reported suffering symptoms, like tingling and concentration problems, that they blamed on the Wi-Fi exposure.

And people who had seen the scary news report were more vulnerable, Witthoft said -- particularly if they were anxiety-prone types to begin with, a trait the researchers assessed with a standard questionnaire.

The findings, which recently appeared in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research, highlight how the mind -- and the media -- influence how you feel, experts said.

"For the media, I think it is essential to present the available scientific evidence in a balanced and cautious way," Witthoft said.

The particular report his team used was a notoriously one-sided program that was seen by close to 5 million Britons when it aired in 2007. It was later called "misleading" by the BBC's own Editorial Complaints Unit.

It is "disturbing" that for some people in this study, just seeing the report was enough to trigger symptoms, according to John Kelley, an associate professor of psychology at Endicott College in Beverly, Mass.

Kelley is also deputy director of Harvard Medical School's Program in Placebo Studies, which was created about two years ago specifically to research the placebo response.

"Unfortunately," Kelley said, "people's expectations can work in the negative direction, as well as the positive."

He said it would be interesting to see whether a more balanced news report on the issue of electromagnetic fields and health would have produced the same results. But it's possible that wouldn't make much difference, Kelley noted.

It may be that simply getting the information makes many people more vigilant for symptoms -- especially the anxiety-prone.

"You start to pay more attention to your body and may notice some things -- a headache, a dry mouth -- that you otherwise wouldn't notice," Kelley said.

And it's not just a phenomenon of "gullible" people falling victim to sensationalist media reports, he noted. Medical students are famous for developing symptoms of the diseases they are currently studying. "It happens to doctors, too," Kelley said.

Study author Witthoft recommended viewing health news with a skeptical eye. "It appears essential to stay critical about any kind of scientific, or pseudo-scientific, information in the media," he said. "I would advise consumers not to jump to simple conclusions prematurely, but to critically review several sources of evidence."

Simply knowing that the things you hear and see can influence actual physical experiences may be helpful -- and eye-opening -- to many people, according to Kelley. "We don't like to believe that we can be pushed to feel something we wouldn't otherwise feel," he said. "But we can be."

More information

Learn more about placebo effects from Harvard's Program in Placebo Studies.

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