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Can explicit suggestions about the harmfulness of EMF exposure exacerbate a nocebo response in healthy controls?

Verrender, Adam, Loughran, Sarah P., Dalecki, Anna, Freudenstein, Frederik, Croft, Rodney J.
Environmental research 2018 v.166 pp. 409-417
adverse effects, anxiety, electromagnetic field, radio waves, risk perception
While there has been consistent evidence that symptoms reported by individuals who suffer from Idiopathic Environmental Intolerance attributed to Electromagnetic Fields (IEI-EMF) are not caused by EMF and are more closely associated with a nocebo effect, whether this response is specific to IEI-EMF sufferers and what triggers it, remains unclear. The present experiment tested whether perceived EMF exposure could elicit symptoms in healthy participants, and whether viewing an ‘alarmist’ video could exacerbate a nocebo response. Participants were randomly assigned to watch either an alarmist (N = 22) or control video (N = 22) before completing a series of sham and active radiofrequency (RF) EMF exposure provocation trials (2 open-label, followed by 12 randomized, double-blind, counterbalanced trials). Pre- and post-video state anxiety and risk perception, as well as belief of exposure and symptom ratings during the open-label and double-blind provocation trials, were assessed. Symptoms were higher in the open-label RF-ON than RF-OFF trial (p < .001). No difference in either symptoms (p = .183) or belief of exposure (p = .144) was observed in the double-blind trials. Participants who viewed the alarmist video had a significant increase in symptoms (p = .041), state anxiety (p < .01) and risk perception (p < .001) relative to the control group. These results reveal the crucial role of awareness and belief in the presentation of symptoms during perceived exposure to EMF, showing that healthy participants exhibit a nocebo response, and that alarmist media reports emphasizing adverse effects of EMF also contribute to a nocebo response.