Rubin GJ, Cleare AJ, Wessely S. (2008). Psychological factors associated with self-reported sensitivity to mobile phones. J Psychosom Res 64(1):1-12.

Some people attribute nonspecific symptoms, such as headaches, fatigue and concentration problems to mobile phone (MP) use. A minority also experience symptoms after exposure to other electrical devices and are more likely to adopt a label such as “electrosensitivity” for their condition. It has been reported in the literature that people in the second group tend to have more severe symptoms, a worse prognosis, and to exhibit a psychological profile different from those of people in the first group. Research has suggested that electromagnetic fields (EMF) do not trigger these symptoms, and that psychological factors may be relevant to their etiology.

The authors examined the differences between these two “sensitive” groups and healthy controls in terms of reasons for using a mobile phone, general physical and psychological health, modern health worries (MHW), the presence of other medically unexplained syndromes, and utilization of different health care providers. The authors hypothesized that those who describe themselves as “electrosensitive” would report worse physical and psychological health, greater MHW, and greater treatment-seeking behavior compared to other participants, and would be more likely to use mobile phones for work.

Three groups of participants were compared: (1) those who reported mobile phone-related symptoms and who also described themselves as “electrosensitive” (ES group), (2) those who reported mobile phone-related symptoms but did not explicitly describe themselves as “electrosensitive” (MP group), and (3) control subjects who did not report any mobile phone-related symptoms. All participants completed a questionnaire assessing the following: demographics, frequency of mobile phone use, typical duration of mobile phone calls, primary reason for using a mobile phone, perceived usefulness of mobile phones, psychological health, symptoms of depression, MHW, general health status, symptom severity, and the presence of other medically unexplained syndromes. All questionnaires were completed before any experimental exposure had taken place.

A total of 152 eligible individuals from 18 to 75 years old responded to advertisements (69 controls and 83 symptomatic participants). Of these, 60 control participants (72%) and 71 symptomatic participants (86%) completed the questionnaires. Of the 71 symptomatic participants, 19 constituted the ES and 52 the MP group.

No significant group differences were seen in typical call duration, frequency of use, or perceived usefulness of mobile phones. However, a significant difference was observed in terms of the reasons for using a mobile phone: MP and ES participants were more likely to use mobile phones predominantly for work than control (13%, 21% and 3% respectively). There were no significant group differences in the percentages of participants classified as psychiatric cases. However, ES participants had a significantly higher level of depressive symptoms than control or MP participants. ES participants also experienced significantly greater MHW about toxic intervention, tainted food and radiation, but not about the environmental pollution. ES group exhibited worse general health status on almost every measure compared to either the MP or the control group. ES group reported greater symptom severity than either the MP or the control group for 9 of 10 categories of somatic symptoms and significantly greater number of other medically unexplained syndromes. Significantly more participants from the ES group than from the MP group reported having sought treatment for their mobile phone-related symptoms.

Other research has shown that a minority of people who believe they are sensitive to EMF, experience symptoms as a result of other illness (organic or psychiatric) and mistakenly attribute them to the presence of EMFs. This study, showing no significant group difference in the prevalence of psychiatric disorders, confirms that this is not the case for most sufferers. Similar to findings of other studies, significantly worse mental (non-psychiatric) health scores were reported in the participants describing themselves as “electrosensitive”, compared to other participants. This suggests that the presence of negative affect may be a risk factor for developing this attribution. Alternatively, the differences in the mental health scores might be due to the presence of perceived electrocensitivity affecting a participant’s mood. The finding that people who report being sensitive to mobile phones are more likely to use their phone for work, suggests that “technostress” may be important in developing “electrosensitivity”, particularly because no group differences were found with regard to any other mobile phone use variable. Two important limitations should be kept in mind when considering these results: 1) the cross-sectional nature of this study makes it difficult to draw firm conclusion about the direction of causality implied in the observed associations; 2) the sample used in this study is unlikely to be representative of the general population.

The data illustrate that patients reporting “electrosensitivity” experience substantially worse health than either healthy individuals or people who report sensitivity to mobile phones but who do not adopt the label “electrosensitivity”. Clinicians and researchers would be wise to pay greater attention to this subdivision.

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