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Cyberchondria: just a click away

When you breed a hypochondriac with access to the internet, a cyberchondriac monster is born. Two weeks ago, I was…

By Kerry Blackadar , in Blogoscopy: Student health in focus , on February 2, 2009 Tags: , , , , ,

When you breed a hypochondriac with access to the internet, a cyberchondriac monster is born.

Two weeks ago, I was convinced I had appendicitis. It was a stomach ache. Last week, I thought I had breast cancer. It was a swollen lymph node.

No doubt the internet is a useful tool for finding health information. But, as I have demonstrated, it’s not always wise to apply the knowledge you learn online. Individuals who tend to make unfounded diagnoses based on literature available on the Web are called cyberchondriacs. And, although it is not an official part of our lexicon yet, with the seemingly infinite growth of internet jargon, the term cyberchondria may soon earn a space between cyber-cafe and cyber-crime in the dictionary.

A study of cyberchondria, conducted by two researchers from Microsoft, was published in November 2008. It is one of the first studies to document the anxieties among those who use the internet for symptom-searching.

The Microsoft researchers found that the ranking of Web search results prejudices one’s self-diagnosis. For instance, if you type “stiff neck” into a Google search, the first website that pops up provides information on meningitis. It is not to say that everyone with a stiff neck who reads this will walk around consumed by the belief that they have meningitis. But, for a few, it will lead to more research on this medical condition and escalated anxiety.

The prevalence of cyberchondria has not been documented. But, there has been some research on the frequency of general online self diagnosis. A recent poll of 2000 adults in the UK found that 38 percent reported having used the Web to self diagnose. Among college and university students I suspect the rate is much higher. With hectic schedules and the skills to conduct online searches, students may favour ‘clicking’ to find answers to their health questions in order to avoid wait times at clinics.

For the general population, online self-diagnosis can be helpful; but, for cyberchondriacs, a simple search of flu symptoms may quickly lead to a fear of having Chron’s disease. One online article, written by Trisha Torrey, a newspaper columnist and self-proclaimed ‘patient advocate,’ says cyberchondria occurs among people “with little background in understanding the body or its systems.” Yet, a similar phenomenon of self-misdiagnosis occurs among medical students, who are presumably very well educated on the mysterious workings of the human body.

Medical school syndrome, or medicalstudentitis, is the term used to describe the phenomenon among medical students to contract phantom illnesses. Described by one neurologist as early as 1908, medical school syndrome is “no joke.” An article published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal says “imagined health problems can cause real anxiety.”

And, just as the anxiety experienced by medical students is real, the worry felt by cyberchondriacs is a valid mental health concern. Rebecca Robinson, who has suffered from anxiety for the last 14 years and cyberchondria for the last four, describes her experiences in an article that was published by The Guardian in late December. She states: “Every day, the same thoughts race through my mind: ‘Will it be my last?’ ‘Is my heart beating OK’ ‘What does that ache mean?’ ‘It must be something bad, mustn’t it?’ As soon as I wake up, I’m exhausted by all the scenarios that plague me.”

Unlike Rebecca Robinson, I do not wake up and question if today ‘will be my last.’ But, I have been led to worry that I may have had appendicitis and breast cancer based on information I found on the internet. Cyberchondriacs who are suffering from serious anxiety though, should visit a doctor for their diagnosis, develop a support network to deal with obsessive tendencies, and try their best to limit their internet health searches. Sticking to reliable sources for health information is also important. The blog Confessions of a Quackbuster lists some unreliable health websites to avoid.

Like many others who are health conscious and have access to the internet, I probably suffer from a mild form of cyberchondria – which is, ironically, a self-diagnosis based on a Web search.