These COVID vaccine symptoms may have come from your brain, not the vaccine

The negative COVID-19 vaccine side effects that your friend told you they experienced may have been in their head, according to a recent study by researchers at Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

The study represents a meta-analysis of 12 vaccine trials with a total of 45,380 participants. The researchers found that 76% of the unwanted side effects (such as fatigue or headaches) that people experienced after receiving their first COVID-19 vaccination were also reported by participants who received a placebo shot. Such results are known as the placebo (or nocebo) effect – meaning that the alleged side effects were not caused by the vaccine itself.

What’s more, while the study showed that mild side effects were more common among participants who received the vaccine, more than a third of the participants who received the placebo injection also reported at least one negative side effect.

A placebo is an inactive treatment or an inactive substance (for example, a sugar pill or a syringe full of saline) that is commonly used in medical research to establish a control group and help scientists determine the safety and effectiveness of a treatment. The placebo effect in a person “is a phenomenon in which the body responds or reacts to the inactive treatment,” said Dr. Richard Dang, president of the California Pharmacists Association and assistant professor of clinical pharmacy at the University of Southern California.

Our minds are impressionable and placebo has been shown to be beneficial, such as when a restless patient is given the equivalent of a sugar pill but is told that it would help them sleep better. “People who take placebo can rest better, simply because it is expected,” explained Dr. Joseph Larkin, a microbiologist at the University of Florida. However, when a patient expects pain or injury to come from a treatment, they experience something known as the nocebo effect – basically a negative placebo effect.

While placebo is commonly used in clinical trials, the statistics citing 35% of placebo recipients in the Beth Israel study who report adverse reactions are unusually high. Dr. Julia W. Haas, a researcher in the placebo studies program at Beth Israel Deaconess and the study’s lead author, said she was “surprised at how big the nocebo reactions actually were.”

One explanation why several experts gave such a large number of placebo recipients claiming negative side effects is the violent misinformation circulating on social media about the alleged dangers of COVID-19 vaccines and the large amount of media coverage devoted to to the subject of vaccination throughout the pandemic. . “Negative information in the media can increase negative expectations for the vaccines and can therefore exacerbate nocebo effects,” Haas said, adding: “Anxiety and negative expectations can exacerbate the experience of side effects.”

“After receiving the placebo, the body or mind may think it is receiving treatment and react in a way it thinks it should,” Dang offered. He explained that placebo recipients, who were told on social media that the vaccines were unsafe, might be looking for problems that were not actually there. “Confirmation bias can definitely be a factor in the number of side effects reported after (receiving) a placebo,” he said.

Placebo or nocebo reactions are also known to be related to how a clinician administers the treatment and whether they show empathy, warmth or competence to the patient or participant. One’s individual misdiagnosis is another potential explanation. “Individuals tend to be more hyperconscious about their body after receiving a treatment and may attribute something along the lines of a headache (which would have occurred anyway) to a treatment received,” Dang said.

Although this study shows a shockingly high number of placebo responses to COVID-19 vaccines, valid side effects are do occurs to many individuals. The CDC lists common mild vaccine side effects that a person may experience, including pain / swelling at the injection site or fatigue, headache, or nausea throughout the body for a day or two after vaccination. Serious side effects such as an allergic reaction are very rare.

Studies like these are nonetheless important because research has shown that informing patients about potential placebo / nocebo responses and providing an accurate framework for possible effects can reduce the level of anxiety and vaccine hesitation.

“This study shows that side effects expected from a COVID-19 vaccine can actually be attributed to the placebo effect and not the vaccine itself,” Dang said. “This information can be used to reassure individuals that the side effects of the vaccine are not as common as previously thought. This, together with all safety data generated from clinical trials and CDC monitoring systems, paints a clear picture that COVID-19 The vaccine is still a safe and important tool in our fight against the pandemic. ”

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