When too much information can hurt you

If you’re like most modern healthcare consumers, you use the Internet to search for health, wellness or medical information. That can range from fairly benign searches for healthier foods, exercises and over-the-counter drug remedies, to more sophisticated inquiries on topics ranging from sleeping disorders or joint injuries to stomach distress and skin cancer. The good news is that there is a ton of information on the Web to help us navigate common concerns and keep us better informed. The bad news is that much of the information may not be accurate or reliable, and could lead us to make poorly informed decisions like not calling a physician when we should or, in a flip of that coin, calling all the time when it may not be necessary.

Everyone knows a hypochondriac.  If it’s harmless Aunt Agnes, who believes she has had every disease in the book, we wink, respond kindly and go back to our dessert. But for millions of Americans, the fear of disease and tendency to self-diagnose can be a serious issue. And easy access to legitimate – and often wrong or unsubstantiated medical information online – can seriously exacerbate or feed these concerns.

Hypochondriasis is the fear of a serious illness that continues despite the reassurance of physicians and testing. These fears and anxieties about illness may become debilitating and interfere with daily life. In the past people would go from friend to friend and from doctor to doctor seeking an answer. In today’s online world, however, many people never see a physician and rely solely upon electronically accessed information or what they may hear on television.

This interaction of excessive anxiety brought on by the use of online and broadcast health information is now being referred to, creatively, as “cyberchondria.” It is defined as an imagined illness with exaggeration of symptoms, no matter how insignificant, that lasts for at least six months and causes significant distress. It tends to develop in the 20s or 30s, and it affects men and women equally.

Most of us know when to see a physician or healthcare professional. The blinding headache that won’t go away, an obvious injury or severe irritation or a persistent virus or cough requires medical diagnosis and intervention. But, just for fun, go to your favorite search engine and look up “headache,” and you’ll be amazed (or not) at what you find:  An enormous online smorgasbord that could take months, or even years, to review. That information is punctuated by thousands of offers for remedies, as well, many of them from unscrupulous advertisers.

For many people, a headache may mean we’re tired, dehydrated, stressed or working too hard. If we have a family history of migraines, that could be a related cause.  But for the cyberchondriac, a headache may be seem as a brain tumor or aneurism, just as a pain somewhere else could be cancer or a chronic disease. The more research they do, the more their anxiety builds. When these misguided attempts at self-diagnosis escalate, pursuing these ailments results in medical tests or treatments costing billions of dollars annually.

What are quirks to some can be obsessive for others – but the suffering is real and can be emotionally paralyzing. Patients don’t have to actually have the disease to believe they are sick, or to exhibit certain related symptoms: Our brains are complex mechanisms that can turn against us in the forms of imaginary or misunderstood aches and pains and anxiety-related behaviors that appear very real to the afflicted. Hypochondriacs tend to be very aware of bodily sensations that most people live with and ignore. The stress that goes along with this worry can make the symptoms even worse, and the more time spent online “researching” – even when the information is accurate — further escalates the concern, and the symptoms.

Part of the problem, experts say, is that information on the Internet is not truly diagnostic or intuitive, compared to a face-to-face meeting with a healthcare professional. Information online tends to be very general, too complex, and easily misinterpreted. Physicians, on the other hand, bring years of diagnostic experience and insight. They have a wide variety of easily accessible testing available to the patient, translate the patient’s family, age, personal and emotional history, and can quickly eliminate or identify potential culprits and symptoms.

It is important to remember that search engines, unlike physicians, are not versed in diagnostic reasoning and do not discriminate between common benign disorders and less common serious problems. The information we can find online is often helpful for better understanding potential medical conditions and remedies, especially when the source is reliable.

Here are a few tips for avoiding or helping to control cyberchondria:

  • Stick with one physician, rather than changing doctors regularly
  • Avoid constant “self-checking” such as constantly monitoring your temperature, blood pressure and pulse
  • Be active, and exercise regularly, which are both good for reducing stress
  • Seek help from a professional therapist or psychologist
  • Join a support group to help you better understand your obsessions and related coping mechanisms.

Ultimately, the smart practice is to take anything we learn on the internet or on television with a grain of salt, realize the limitations to analyzing medical conditions through these media, and seek professional medical information and attention whenever we’re sick . . . or believe we may be sick.

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