In my practice I’ve noticed a trend among my patients. Most people who come to see me these days have checked out their symptoms online before their visit. In a lot of cases, what they find leads them to believe they are suffering from something much worse than that they actually are.
That might not sound like a big deal. It usually means I get to give them good news, at least from their perspective. However, cyberchondria—that’s what it’s called when people jump to conclusions about their health based on Internet information—isn’t as harmless as it sounds.
The Subtle Ways That Cyberchondria Hurts You
First, cyberchondria can cause you needless stress. If you’re suffering from a headache and you log in to the Internet only to become convinced you have a brain tumor, that’s not good. The chances of you having a brain tumor versus all the other reasons you might have a headache are very small. Worrying you have a brain tumor creates a stress response in your body, and stress is linked to a number of health problems.
Studies have found that stress contributes to high blood pressure and heart disease. Stress can also lead to depression, insomnia, and weight gain. So, bringing needless stress into your life is just not a good idea.
Other studies have shown that cyberchondria reduces productivity at work. Many people who attempt to diagnose their symptoms online jump to the worst-case scenario. This leads to anxiety and usually disrupts productivity at work. More than half of people surveyed in one study said they had at times ignored day-to-day activities to research a serious medical condition that they thought they might have.
Another consequence of cyberchondria is that it can put a strain on your relationship with your doctor. Many cyberchondriacs feel that doctors aren’t taking their concerns seriously, and many doctors may overlook the depth of anxiety a cyberchondriac is experiencing about even mild symptoms.
How to Use the Internet as a Helping Tool
Now, all this doesn’t mean that I’m against people using the Internet to learn more about their health. I think the Internet is a fantastic and powerful tool when used properly.
So, I’ve put together some guidelines to help you be a smart Internet searcher when it comes to your health.
First, pay the most attention to sites that are reputable. Sites that are doctor-reviewed like WebMD and MedlinePlus are best.
Next, gather information, but don’t jump to conclusions about your diagnosis. When you become certain about something, you also become emotionally invested in it. For example, if you feel certain you have cancer, you may have a hard time accepting that you don’t. That will make it harder to work with your doctor to find out the real source of your symptoms.
After you’ve done your research, let the information—and your symptoms—rest for a couple of days. In most cases you’ll find that your symptoms have disappeared and that you’re feeling better. If a symptom is very painful or uncomfortable or if it lasts for several days, that’s the time to go see your doctor.
Finally, remember to get your annual checkup. Annual checkups are meant to catch big problems early on when they are easiest to treat. If you see your doctor annually, you’ll be able to feel a lot more confident that the symptoms you’re suffering from are from something mild rather than life-threatening. For example, with regular checkups it might be easier to accept that the headache you’re suffering from is actually from caffeine withdrawals rather than a brain tumor.
One final note, I do believe that using the Internet after you’ve received a diagnosis to explore treatment options and to find support is one of the best things the Internet has done for the health industry. So, if you’ve received a diagnosis from your doctor, definitely spend some time online finding out more about it and about treatments. Just remember that it’s important to discuss all treatments—even natural supplements—with your doctor.