Your hiccups just won’t quit. Seriously, it’s been two days. You could head to your GP. But, groan. So inconvenient. And Dr Google is faster and free. It takes you mere seconds to type your symptoms into a search engine and just a few more to learn that those persistent throat spasms could be a sign of a pulmonary embolism. Or a stroke. Or, cancer.
One in 20 of the 100 billion monthly Google searches relates to health and medical info. Psychologists have given this tech-enabled obsessing over real or imagined symptoms a name: Cyberchondria.
“Everybody googles their symptoms, diagnoses and treatments – and that’s enabled people to be a lot more knowledgeable,” says neurologist Dr Lyle Dennis. “But the flip side is that people are getting scared.” Why?
Millions of medical sites, blogs and Wiki pages can, intentionally or not, spew out a bunch of overwhelming, confusing or panic-inducing info. The good news: Google is overhauling how it displays health-related search queries, partnering with the Mayo Clinic to ensure more credible information is the most accessible.
But is shopping for a diagnosis online scary or smart? Read these three real-life scenarios below, then decide for yourself…
Read more: 7 lies you really need to stop telling your doctor
Case study 1
Amanda had been tired for weeks. A web search for “fatigue” brought up site after site describing her exact symptoms and pointing to a likely diagnosis: Systemic exertion intolerance disease (aka chronic fatigue). She ordered scores of supplements that promised relief. When they didn’t deliver – several months and a lot of money later – a blood test at her GP revealed the real, easily treatable culprit: Anaemia.
What the experts say
“Anxiety often motivates us to find answers,” explains clinical psychologist Dr Thomas Fergus. It’s human nature to identify any and all perceived threats, which makes online health hunting a loaded endeavour. Research from Microsoft US shows around 40% of people who type in medical terms start calmly, then quickly escalate (read: cramps becoming anxiety-induced ulcers).
“Based on web searches, I’ve had patients with common headaches come in thinking they have brain tumours,” says internal medicine specialist Dr Sandra Fryhofer. But many don’t even make it that far.
“Some women are convinced they have an illness and decide to treat it themselves,” says obstetrician and gynaecologist Dr Michele Curtis. “Others become paralysed by denial and don’t want to hear an official diagnosis.” Either way, some cyberchondriacs delay care, which can lead to serious consequences. (For example, if sudden vaginal bleeding does turn out to be cervical cancer, early treatment can be lifesaving. But, for real, you probably don’t have cervical cancer!)
Case study 2
Erin was scrolling through Facebook when she saw a friend had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. A link sent Erin through to a message board full of patients’ descriptions of early symptoms, including tingling in the hands and feet. Erin had felt that before! She dialled her doctor, demanding a battery of expensive and invasive tests (hello, spinal tap). Everything came back negative. Oh.
What the experts say
Doctors know they shouldn’t order tests sans red flags, but many cave in anyway. “Some women are so convinced they have a certain ailment that it’s hard to dissuade them, even with proof,” says Dr Curtis. Turns out, reading real-life stories can also be a catalyst for a “what if?” frenzy that leads to “me too!”
Without context or professional know-how, social media-shared stories can seem almost too relatable. “It’s the narrative that matters to people, often more than the facts,” says Dr Curtis.
Case study 3
Sarah had a dull ache in her right side. A quick Google search suggested it was indigestion or a pulled muscle. She kept clicking and saw appendicitis mentioned. Alarmed, Sarah ferreted out more info on the condition and eventually found a self-test: Press and release on the area to see if that hurts. Ouch! Sarah called her doctor, who sent her to emergency right before her appendix burst.
What the experts say
Few medical conditions can snowball as fast as an online health investigation, but in some cases, a little cyberchondria can steer you in the right direction. In fact, a survey by Pew Research Center found that 41% of those who digitally diagnose said a professional confirmed their suspicion.
Taking an active role in your health is linked to better outcomes, says WH health expert Dr Ginni Mansberg. “My patients have more time to research than me and really think about their symptoms. I only often get 15-20 minutes with someone, so it can be a godsend to have a patient come in presenting what they think they have.”
This article was originally published on www.womenshealthsa.co.za
Image credit: iStock