The High Price of Cyberchondria

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If you’ve ever surfed the Web for “headache” or “head pain” and wound up diagnosing yourself with a rare brain tumor or fatal disease, you’re not alone. According to National Geographic, the average American spends 52 hours per year looking up health information. And if all that time checking (and rechecking) your symptoms online leads to a very real case of cyberchondria, your budget could be the one suffering from a case of broke-itis.

Cyberchondria is defined as the escalation of concerns about common symptomatology based on a review of search results and literature online. Come down with a case of it, and it’s going to cost you a pretty penny.

Doctor Internet Is In
Cyberchondria first appeared in modern vernacular in 2001 and referred to anecdotal reports of patients bringing their doctors printouts from the Internet. Over the years, medical professionals have seen a significant uptick in the number of patients heading to doctor’s offices and emergency rooms after first consulting Dr. Internet and self-diagnosing symptoms — real or otherwise.

On the surface, symptom surfing appears to offer an unparalleled layer of comfort. It’s rare you can speak to your doctor instantly, but you can Google your symptoms and get hundreds or thousands of pages filled with comments and suggestions from fellow patients who’ve experienced the same health issue.

Trading paper gowns and wasted time in waiting rooms for search engines and instantaneous information comes with a price: paranoia. And that’s a costly symptom of cyberchondria you might not be able to afford.

Reading, and rereading, about symptoms naturally heightens your awareness for what ails you, says David Kloth, spokesperson and past president of the American Society of Interventional Pain Physicians. That can make a headache, pain in your back or other symptom feel worse or more exaggerated. And if a search related to that pain or symptom leads to you reading about a terminal or life-threatening condition, your stress level will ratchet up.

“Even a slight hint that a symptom could be linked to something serious can exacerbate symptoms. It can also cause stress-related pain or other symptoms,” says Kloth. So that mild ache that might have gone away with a dose of ibuprofen and a hot shower now becomes a debilitating pain that sends you to the doctor. It becomes a pain in your wallet when you have to pay unnecessary copays or health insurance deductibles.

“Patients coming in with headaches they’re convinced is a brain tumor are extremely common. So are patients researching symptoms that could be two different things; however, they jump to the most crippling disease or syndrome, even if it’s clear they don’t have it,” says Rahul K. Khare, an emergency department physician at Northwestern Memorial Hospital and an assistant professor at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago. “We see many patients who search online about muscle aches, fatigue or pain and are convinced they have chronic fatigue syndrome.”

Self-diagnosing symptoms online ups health care costs because it can cause a real medical issue or delay proper diagnosis and treatment. Let’s say a cyberchondria-fueled “cure” you find online triggers an allergic reaction, pain or other health malady that sends you to the doctor or emergency room. You’re left footing the bill for medicine or treatment to soothe the reaction or treat the side effect of your cyber-cure.

Symptom surfing can also mask a valid health concern if you become so focused on search results that you neglect valid health issues like quitting smoking, exercising daily and eating healthy. Experts say this can be much more hazardous to your health than the vague connection between a random ache and a terminal disease. It can also lead to costly medical bills if a serious issue like heart disease develops because you became addicted to junk food or forgot to take your blood pressure medicine while sitting in front of search engines.

A Healthier Prescription

It’s tough to go cold turkey and cut out all symptom surfing, but doctors say these steps can cure a bout of cyberchondria — and spare you the copays and deductibles.

Track time. Set a timer for five minutes to limit the amount of time you spend Googling symptoms. And stick to logging off when the timer rings, pings or buzzes.
Keep a journal. Spot patterns and signs of cyberchondria by writing down when and what health topics you research online.
Size up the sites. If you can’t help but surf for information about your symptoms, stick to well-known agencies and organizations like the American Cancer Society (cancer.org), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (cdc.gov), National Institutes of Health (nih.gov) or the Arthritis Foundation (arthritis.org), which do a good job at accurately outlining symptoms and their possible causes. Government agencies (which have a “.gov” extension), colleges and universities (which have an “.edu” extension) and hospitals like the Mayo Clinic (mayoclinic.org) are also safe and provide accurate and trustworthy information.
Steer clear of cyber friends. Sure, it’s comforting to read that 107 of your Twitter followers or Facebook friends have experienced your symptoms, but doctors say message boards, chat rooms and social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook are ripe with erroneous information that can trigger a costly case of cyberchondria. Remember, no two patients are the same, so even if your symptoms look or sound the same as those of a Facebook friend, the two of you may have two completely different causes.

Photo credit: Getty ThinkStock

Editor’s note: For expert advice on medical questions for you and your pets, you can try a real-time chat on eHow Now. This helpful service connects you with doctors and veterinarians, and can let you know when to consult professional help.

(Full disclosure: eHow Now is owned by eHow’s parent company, Demand Media.)

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