Thursday, February 12, 2009

Are you a cyberchondriac?

What is Cyberchondria?

This is one of the most recent words spawned by the Internet, and is a form of Internet addiction driven by anxiety. In brief it is the anxiety caused by too much searching for health information, that is often contradictory, and which causes the searcher to believe that they have excessively serious illnesses, or diagnoses that are out of proportion to their symptoms.

I have just put the common symptoms “headache, nausea, dizziness” into Google, and in the first ten responses could find diagnoses ranging from the flu, to stomach ulcers right up to a range of serious neurological disorders, including brain cancer.

Everyone gets hypochondriacal on occasions, and believes that they have illnesses where none exist. Patients who in the past had “hypochondriasis” tended to present to their doctors with the latest medical dictionary or pharmaceutical book. Alternatively, they had heard tales of woe from a friend, a colleague, or the local gossip suggesting that the minor symptom that they had may be a sign of impending doom and a long and prolonged death.
It’s quite natural, therefore, that as we all now have access to huge amounts of health information on the Internet, that some people might start imagining that they have dreadful illnesses. This is certainly happening. There is no doubt that some patients are presenting with symptoms of “cyberchondria”. I have seen several in my own practice. The most serious case I have seen was a very intelligent university student, who had to be literally withdrawn from the Internet because he was spending up to 18 hours per day searching for “cures” for his fantasy illnesses. Luckily he had understanding parents who did not have a computer at their home and who let him move back with them for several months so that he could be “dried out” in an Internet free environment.

What should you do if you think you, or a loved one, is a cyberchondriac? The first step is to go and talk to your doctor, seek reassurance about your symptoms, make sure that they are properly medically investigated, and use your doctor as a health information analyst, so that you can understand which symptoms are of concern, and which are not.
“Treatment” generally consists of providing reassuring and accurate information about an individual’s health status, and teaching them how to work together with their doctor to analyze the health information that they found on the Internet more critically and more accurately. Much of the health information on the Internet is of good quality, but there are also large numbers of websites with incorrect, or even bizarre, information that has been placed for commercial, philosophical or political purposes, that can make people very confused, anxious and cyberchondriacal. I have for a number of years handed out information to patients on the best websites to go to for health information, and on how to search easily for high quality accurate health information.

If you are in this situation, then you should certainly consult with your doctor, and over time, learn to use the Internet more effectively to improve your health. It is a wonderful tool for this purpose and is currently used by about 10 million Americans each day who search for health information for themselves or a loved one.

This article is based on excerpts from the recently published book “Your Health in the Information Age – how you and your doctor can use the Internet to work together” by Peter Yellowlees MD. Available at and most online bookstores.

1 comment:

  1. The case of the university student is shocking. However, I should not be surprised as it seems daily I am telling patients, "No, you do not have the swine flu."

    However, I have also noted that sometimes patients researching their symptoms can actually make my job as a physician diagnosing their condition more difficult. Often patients will superficially read an article or misunderstand a medical term and then present that condition to me at the time of my consultation incorrectly. An example can be a finding of "fluid in the lungs." Upon obtaining a history from a patient recently, I was sidetracked from their account of a recent hospitalization 6 months before. The patient heard the term "fluid in the lungs" during their hospital stay and later researched that term online. The patient then assumed that she had suffered from congestive heart failure. Because the hospital records were not immediately avaiable, I spent a lot of time trying to find out why this patient had an episode of congestive heart failure. A week later a copy of her medical record arrived. She had not had an episode of congestive heart failure but a pleural effusion secondary to pneumonia.

    As Bob Proctor said, " can cook a man's dinner with electricity, and you can also cook the man!"

    Information can be dangerous in the hands of those who do not know how to apply it effectively. Read and research--but with care.

    Jonathan S. Ware, MD