We all know a few hypochondriacs. Maybe we've experienced that ourselves, convinced that a persistent ache is from some rare disease rather than from exercising a little too hard. Hypochondria is nothing new.
However, our great-great-grandparents who feared the worst whenever some potential illness arose didn't have the biggest source of information -- and fear -- we have now. Web research is both a blessing and a curse.
52 hours a year. That's how much time the average American spends online, looking up information on their health and the health of those they love.
The abundance of online information makes it easy to find possible explanations for common things like a sore throat or headache. But, as The New York Times discovered when interviewing Microsoft researchers, "Web searches for things like headache and chest pain were just as likely or more likely to lead people to pages describing serious conditions as benign ones."
While serious conditions are far rarer, it turns out there are "just as many results that linked headaches with brain tumors as with caffeine withdrawal, although the chance of having a brain tumor is infinitesimally small."
Thinking the worst
Microsoft researchers Ryen White and Eric Horvitz noted that expecting the worst is a frequent occurrence, not limited to people searching online for health information. "Web searchers’ propensity to jump to awful conclusions was basic human behavior that has been noted by research scientists for decades."
In the New England Journal of Medicine, Drs. Jerome Groopman and Pamela Hartzband commented on what happens when people "consult the Internet in search of self-diagnosis. Sometimes, doing so leads them to seek medical attention rapidly and to suggest what turns out to be a correct diagnosis. But the Web is perilous for anyone prone to hypochondria."
This is especially true, according to the doctors, since "chat rooms and blogs filled with testimonials have proliferated. Patients frequently encounter conflicting advice and opinions. Falsehoods are easily and rapidly propagated on the Internet: once you land on a site that asserts a false rumor as truth, hyperlinks direct you to further sites that reinforce the falsehood."
No wonder hypochondriacs who spend time researching potential explanations for their symptoms online have earned a new description: cyberchondriacs.
A Columbia University Medical Center psychiatrist specializing in health anxiety, Dr. Kelli Harding described some effects of cyberchondria to US News. "It can be costly if people demand expensive medical tests such as MRIs and CT scans, which also put them at risk for other conditions."
She also noted that cyberchondriacs run the risk of getting scammed by sites that offer worthless treatments. "It's upsetting how many websites are out there that claim to be offering facts and end up selling things. They want you to be afraid."
The stress caused by false alarms can be genuinely detrimental, Harding warns. "The big irony is that people tend to be less healthy when they are preoccupied with their health as opposed to exercising."
What to do instead
Anyone who feels tempted to search for dire explanations of what might be ordinary symptoms can feel confident in material received during an appointment with an actual physician.
To avoid needless stress and make the most of your health, be sure to:
* See your doctor regularly and save up all your concerns for those visits * Avoid infomercials and sites promoting cures for sale * When seeking medical information, use reputable websites by recognized health professionals.
Just like the first-year medical students convinced they're suffering from new disease they study, cyberchondriacs who recognize their dilemma can find relief!