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How does the Nocebo Effect work?

The Nocebo Effect is the counter to the more often understood Placebo Effect. A placebo is typically a fake medication that is given out during tests. Those taking it are told that it's the real thing, and some of them see medical benefits, even though they're just taking sugar pills. This shows the true power of the human mind and how expectations can shape reality.

With the Nocebo Effect, people are sometimes informed of downsides or side effects, and researchers find that these things then become more likely. For example, telling people that a medicine can give them an elevated heart rate could make it more likely for them to have one due to anxiety, stress, and expectations.

It doesn't always show up just with medication, though. One group of individuals who all had chronic back pain were brought in for a flexibility test. Half of the group got a warning in advance that they may feel pain while dong the test; the other half did not. The group that had been warned then reported feeling pain at a significantly higher rate.

The risk for doctors, then, is that they could hold back information in an effort to reduce side effects. This may be easily justifiable, but it could still violate a patient's rights. It's unethical for doctors to lie or deceive patients about possible outcomes, as the patients' consent can only be given after they have been properly informed. Those who feel they were intentionally misled for any reason -- including negligence -- may want to look into their legal options.

Source: Smithsonian Mag, "What Is the Nocebo Effect?," Joseph Stromberg, accessed Jan. 25, 2017

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