Almost everyone who gets sick turns to the internet to find out what's wrong. A session of internet research can provide reassurance to someone with a mystery sickness. But, for some people, researching symptoms on the internet can become an addiction, even though it only adds to their distress. That addiction is a condition called cyberchondria, which combines the imagined symptoms of hypochondria with the infinite information on the web.
What is cyberchondria?
Many people experience anxiety when searching for medical information online. What makes someone a cyberchondriac, said Thomas Fergus, an assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor University, is that they still feel stressed even if a doctor tells them they have nothing to worry about.
The word cyberchondria was first coined in the early 2000s, said Fergus, who researches anxiety disorders and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Researchers have only closely studied cyberchondria for about five years. As a result, it's unclear how common cyberchondria is, at least in the U.S.
In the U.K., where the government provides healthcare, a study recently estimated cyberchondria was costing the National Health Service $556 million a year. There's been no similar study in the U.S., Fergus said.
Still, "we do know that health anxiety is associated more broadly with greater utilization of medical services and higher costs," he said.
Some people with health-related anxiety do skip medical services to avoid confirming their healthcare fears, Fergus said, but they are a minority.
Cyberchondria is a relatively new ailment, so there's no playbook for treating it. Cognitive behavioral therapy, which is also used to treat anxiety, depression, eating disorders and other mental health conditions, would probably help cyberchondriacs, but no one has studied its effectiveness, Fergus said.
In any case, if someone finds themselves repeatedly searching for symptoms and getting more and more stressed, it's best to get off the computer and talk to a doctor.
As for physicians, they have to listen, said Richard Senelick, a neurologist and editor-in-chief of HealthSouth Press.
About 20 years ago, one of Senelick's patients sued him and seven other doctors and hospitals. The patient, a 40-year-old woman, had logged onto a computer at the library in Texas, searched the internet and correctly diagnosed herself with a rare disease. Senelick and the others had missed it. They lost the suit.
"We need to not have a jaded view," he said.
Blowing off a patient is a mistake, he said. Listening could lead to a better diagnosis. Patients may just return to their computers if doctors demean their findings.
In terms of calming a patient's prolonged fears, Senelick said it helps to put things in perspective. The chances of getting into a car accident on the way to a doctor's office are probably higher than contracting whatever rare disease Google spits out. Just because something is scary doesn't make it likely.
Healthcare & the internet
It might be tempting to argue that anyone feeling ill should avoid Google. Coverage of cybochondria often focuses on how much doctors hate it when patients have done their own research. But looking up symptoms doesn't have to lead to an obsession, Fergus said.
"For a lot of individuals who are curious about their health or someone else's health, either a loved one or a friend, it could have a number of benefits for informing them and leading them to engage with medical professionals," he said.
For patients with embarrassing symptoms, the internet offers a stigma-free way of figuring out what's wrong, Fergus said.
"It's not all bad and it's not all good," he said. Just know when to stop searching and talk to a doctor.
Senelick has turned to the web himself since being diagnosed with cancer in May. He sought out information on how to deal with the side effects in chemotherapy, since many doctors haven't gone through it themselves.
The best way to Google symptoms
Patients who aren't cyberchondriacs should understand physicians don't have a lot of time. Asking them to read pages of printouts won't fly. Try to condense the information you're bringing to the doctor's office.
"Put yourself in the position of the physician knowing he's busy," Senelick said. "He's seeing lots of patients."
Patients should write down a handful of questions to ask ahead of time. And don't trust any old blog for information. Stick to trusted sources like the Mayo Clinic or the American Medical Association.
Some sites turn every symptom into the most awful, catastrophic conditions possible, Senelick said. Run from these sites.
And if you can't, it may be a sign that you're a cyberchondriac. You may want to look for others: Are you looking up symptoms multiple times a day for long periods of time? Do your searches lead to a variety of self-diagnoses? Does searching make you more anxious? If so, you might want to talk to a mental health professional.