You’ve definitely heard of famous placebo effect. It is a phenomenon, when people feel effects of the drug even though they are giving a placebo, which does not really have any active substances. In many cases it may actually be helpful as this psychological factor may help people to feel better or even speed up recovery process, but usually scientists dread finding it, because it interferes with the testing of new medicine. Now scientists noticed that placebo effect works in a different way too and called it a “nocebo effect”.
How placebo effect works? You are told the drug will do something and you are waiting for the effect to happen. You sort of convince yourself to feel the effect even though you are taking placebo – a dummy pill. Nocebo effect is similar, but works for contraindications instead. As scientists explain, it is feeling side effects of the drug just because you are told that there will be side effects.
This effect is known for scientists for quite some time, but they were not sure how it works. Maybe people are just more aware of the effects when they know what to expect? Or is it just a completely psychological thing and effects start appearing in their head first? Scientists wanted to find out and thus conducted this very long study, involving 10,000 trial participants in the UK, Ireland and Scandinavia.
Participants had to take either a statin, a common cholesterol drug, or a placebo. All of them were aware of the side effects that can potentially occur: muscle aches, erectile dysfunction, sleep problems and cognitive impairment. Scientists followed these people for some years and found that pretty much the same number of people who took statins and fake drugs reported muscle aches and erectile dysfunction. Interestingly, people taking placebo reported sleeping problems more often.
What does this mean? Well, firstly, scientists still doesn’t know what causes nocebo effect – is it that people start feeling things because they are expecting them or they attribute problems to the drugs, even though they are caused by something else entirely. Also, scientists say that it can actually be pretty dangerous.
Statins are commonly used drugs to manage cholesterol levels. And because of their popularity, there are a lot of bad reviews. People read them and expect bad things to happen, which may actually happen just because of this effect. Then many people stop taking their pills, which may cause different health problems.
Scientists say that it can be mitigated through simple communication. Doctors should know about nocebo effect and communicate it to the patients. Drugs are proved and tested and thus it is always better to trust doctor’s judgement than to quit taking important medicine just out of fear of some adverse effects.