Cyberchondria: Is it all in your Head?

By , SparkPeople Blogger
Most of us have heard of hypochondria--you know the obsessive belief that you have some dreaded illness due to symptoms that you are experiencing or have developed related to that illness. But now that we have the world at our finger tips via the worldwide web, many individuals have developed a condition that health care professionals are labeling as cyberchondria.

Cyberchondria is a behavior where individuals use the web in order to gather information about their health or the health of their loved ones in order to gain a better insight into their situation many times leading these individuals to great apprehension and anxiety.

And how easy it is these days to develop such a condition with 24/7 access to such sites as the Mayo Clinic and WebMD. Allís one has to do is plug in his/her symptoms and before he/she knows it, there is a laundry list of conditions that may or may not be his/her problem.

This is exactly what happened to me a few months ago when I developed some numbness on the left side of my face. Of course instead of heading straight to the emergency room, I did what many of us do--check the web-right? As a Registered Nurse, the most obvious was a stroke or TIA (AKA-mini-stroke) but I soon compiled a list that included Bellís Palsy, Multiple Sclerosis, and Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (AKA Lou Gehrigís) and everything in between.

After an hour of uncertainty (not wise on my part if this had been a stroke) I decided to go to the ER to be evaluated just in case. The docs were primarily concerned with a stroke or TIA--not one mentioned any of the other diseases that were floating in the back of my mind. After a series of tests-CT Scan, MRI, and blood work-and meeting with several specialists, a cardiologist and neurologist, it was determined that I did NOT have a stroke, TIA, Bellís palsy, or any of the other illnesses I had doomed myself as having. So what was the problem? It ended up being a common migraine that had presented itself with a new aura. What a relief, but I learned a great lesson not to try to play doc myself.

So why is so cyberchodria so dangerous?

For many the web is a great source of information and knowledge, but for others it can lead to obsessive thoughts and great anxiety regarding their health. Even simple, benign symptoms can be escalated into major medical events since vague symptoms can be related to many illnesses. These individuals arenít doing this for attention, they truly believe they suffer from some illness and need medical attention-- they need to know the Ďrightí answer.

While having access to this information is helpful, it is also very important to understand that these sites are not diagnostic in nature. Therefore, if you become anxious with your health, it is best left to your doctor or health care provider to evaluate your situation instead of allowing a website to lead you to greater apprehension.

Have you ever used a medical website to help diagnose your problem only to find more than you bargained for?

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Guilty, guilty, guilty...but I need to know why a woman my age and ten years past a hysterectomy is anemic. Dr. is still running tests. Ironically, she wants more blood! ;P Report
For a while, I didn't have health insurance. So anytime I suffered from some mysterious ailment, I headed straight for the web to help me determine if I was nearing death. Yes, it's very anxiety-producing to try and self-diagnose. But sometimes, those without health insurance are very reluctant to see a doctor. Report
Guilty...but on the other side of that...I went to three specialists, only to be told they thought I had Lung Cancer. Cancer..ok I wasn't ready to accept this at 42 years old. I have kids, grandkids yet to see grow up. So..Cyber searching I went. During this time, after various PET scans, two different Biopsy procedures, pills, proding, they were no closer to knowing what was wrong. So back to the cyber world I went. I found what I though it could be, Sarcoidosis. And I was correct after contacting the Cleveland Clinic and going to a Sarcoidosis specialits. It was just not normal for a white female, under the age of 45 to get this. So...I'm glad I'm a cyberchodria, and I could aford my bill for the diagnosis! Report
These websites can be helpful for understanding conditions, but I don't think they're a good replacement for read medical advice or treatment.

When my mom was going through her colon cancer treatment a few years ago, the doctors asked her to please consider the source of information she was getting online. Apparently there had been problems in the past with patients reading about non-proven "remedies" for cancer and not considering the consequences of stopping proven treatments. Report
When I was a child my sister and I watched the movie Ben Hur,one of the characters in the movie had the dreaded disease leprosy. After the show my sister went to my Mom's health book and looked up leprosy and determined she had it. Of course she did not have it and my Mom forbade her use of the medical book because she was always finding some dreaded disease she thought she had. I will pass this article on to her, but she may think that she is having a stroke! Report
Actually, yes I did. I had back pain and looked it up and eventually, though a long series of connected articles on websites, had myself convinced that I ovarian cancer. I was scared stiff! It turned out it was just some strained back muscles. Report
I use these sites in tandem with real medical professionals. I'm lucky that my mom is a nurse practitioner with a good head on her shoulders. I can always go to her with my fears/paranoia and she'll usually tell me if it's nothing to worry about or if I should go see my doctor. I never self-medicate, too many drug interactions that I know nothing about. I do like having the web as another source of information though!! It was especially helpful in actually calming my fears when I had Bells palsy. Even though I had a particularly bad case of it (I still can't close my eye without my mouth pulling up) it made me feel much better to read stories of people that had it and went back to normal lives afterwards. Report
I always go to the computer to research my symtoms and have found that I have more success than my doctor - probably b/c I take my time and really research and the doctor is usually too busy to even listen. Plus, as I discovered when I was diagnosed with breast cancer and had to go through breast reconstruction, no doctor in the world has the time to explain all the things that I had to go through and all possible complications. Thank God for the net! Report
How true. I sometimes get all panicky when I read those web-sites trying to figure out what is wrong with me. The other day I noticed my anckles were really swollen so I started browsing around and came across some horrible diagnosis. I didn't go to a doctor but instead just went home and rested for a few hours. The swalling came down and so did my nerves. I then realized that it was a reaction to a new protein drink that I drank too much which caused a bad water retention in my body. Report
I do use these sites to try to diagnose myself, but it is because I can't afford to run to the doctor everytime my throat hurts or I have a tummy ache. I just use them to try to figure out if it is something that actually needs medical attention so I'm not rushing to the ER for the common cold. I am very careful not to jump to conclusions and I consider everything skeptically, "OK, it could be this, but I don't feel THAT bad..." I generally look to make sure I'm NOT sick, not the other way around. Report
Oh gosh, I'm quite guilty of this. I also stopped checking things out because I found myself worrying needlessly over stupid things. A simple stomach ache became me thinking I had cancer... silly me. Report
I won't search for a diagnosis based on symptoms, but I will look up details for things I've been diagnosed with by a doctor...
I think part of the problem with the symptom-lists is that it counts everything, and sometimes adding another symptom or two (like being tired, even if you have a known cause for the tiredness already, say... lack of sleep!) can send you a completely different list of illnesses and diseases. I had a rash once that my BF looked up, and when he also told the computer that I was tired and crabby (it was FINALS week) and that I seemed lethargic (again, FINALS week), I think it came back with a brain tumor. In reality, it was finals week and laundry soap.
I have used the internet a great deal to look up symptoms and the meaning of lab report results; however, I do not allow myself to become anxious over the possibilities. I just like to know the facts for myself regardless of whether I put myself into the care of a physician. Report
I use it to look up the problems that I've already had diagnosed. I have enough to work with that I don't need to go adding anything LOL ^.^ Report
I have looked up things on the web but mostly when there already was a diagnosis. Report
No I haven't. After reading this article I'm glad I've never done it...LOL Report
My mom told me that if my temperature was below a certain point in the morning (according to some website) that I could have thyroid disease or other hormonal problems. I went to the doc, and what a surprise, no thyroid disease. lol

I felt so happy. Report
I have found the internet to be very helpful. When I started having widespread, unexplained pain a few years ago, I started to research the symptoms. I was able to rule out RA and Lupus and had self diagnosed fibromyalgia. When I went to my primary care MD and then a rheumatologist, they both concurred that I have fibromyalgia. I CAN understand how someone can become overly concerned by trivial symptoms by the internet, but in some cases it can be an invaluable tool. And, I would like to add, the SP teams such as "Fighting Fibromyalgia" are a tremendous help for those with this daily struggle. Report
I never really know how to work out, but anytime I set myself to walk around or move I always feel better. I need some new ways to motivate and challenge myself. Report
This can be a very dangerous thing. When my oldest daughter was diagnosed with Leukemia at the age of 3, the doctors warned us NOT to research her condition on the computer. We did not, and I always think about how grateful we are to those doctors for sharing that bit of wisdom with us. We just concentrated on getting her in remission and loving her every minute of every day. She is 21 now and you would never know she was ever sick. Report
I have often used the internet to search my symptoms. Usually the result shows I have stress for the best or some rare terminal disease at the worst. Report
I'll admit that I do research the internet...but I'll always go to a doctor if I'm really concerned. I do have to say that using the Internet is a whole lot cheaper than a whomping doctor's bill just to find out there's nothing wrong! Report
As with my friends, I caution my dauhters when taking or reading advice from anyone or any place. Some people and web sites have Agendas of their own for whatever reason. Report
I think it could be dangerous if you just use the internet and don't seek a doctor. But is very helpful to look up the lastest information on meds that you have been
given by your doctor because they don't always take the time to explain the side effects of your meds. At least mine did not. I believe the internet is a useful tool for medical information. Report
With my Mom being very ill, I use the web to look up words that are in her paperwork that we have no clue about. Before surgeries I have gone online to see what is being done, and I check meds, other than that I leave it to the professionals. Report
Our youngest boy had very serious medical problems. We arranged for the doctor's notes to be mailed to us after every appointment. The web was a God send! I was able to look up words and gain the vocabulary to ask questions at the following appointments. We did not use the internet to replace the doctors, we used it to supplement the doctors. It really helped to use web sites that were dedicated to his genetic problems. When someone has a rare disease, it is hard to find local support. I do not know what I would have done without the internet! Report
I only use the web to check on medications and to find out more information about what I've been diagnosed with. Looking up symptoms is counter productive for me, could really freak myself out. I see my Dr about every 6 weeks anyway, so I have good access to the professional opinion. I don't need anything else to worry about. Report
Since I was laid off we no longer have health insurance. I think that I'll actually be relying on the web for medical information a lot MORE than I have in the past. My husband is a bit of a hypochondriac, so that leaves the task of looking up things (and keeping a cool, clear head) to me! Report
I don't try to self diagnose via theweb but I do check for info on any new meds I take. Report
I did the same thing because my mom's doctor was unreliable. My mom has a chronic case of vomiting, and he had no explanation. He treats patients as if he were still in a large hospital with minimal time, even though he now has a small family practice. Thank god she goes to a different doctor now.

Anyway, I stopped looking for the serious conditions on the internet. All I do now is look for cold treatments. ;) Report
I work in a hospital and medical websites are all we are able to reach on line. I had labs drawn and found my lipase was low. Well as an ultrsound tech, I knew about high lipase and the pancreas but I did not know about low lipase. Instaed of waiting to hear from my Dr. I looked uo low lipase and was convince my weight was due to that. Then my Dr. was not concerned at all. Boy did I almost freak myself out. My Dr. is now who I turn to. Alikay5755 Report
I think it depends upon the person. Some people obsess over what they might have, while others are merely getting to know their bodies better and seeing what is sensible for them.
I do find out about diseases, but I don't think that I have all of them. I guess it is intellectual curiosity. However, when I have definitely been diagnosed by a doctor, then I do more research on the condition. Report
My doctor and my mother's doctor take all the time that we need. So I agree with go to the professionals. The internet can do more harm than good. Report
I think it's great to have information at your fingertips, but you definitely have to be careful. When I was pregnant I used the internet to soothe myself when I was nervous, and thankfully never had anything bad happen. When I needed to go to the doctor I didn't even check, I just knew. I think it's better for learning more about a condition when you have it than it is for diagnostics. Report
I have never really found the web helpful. When I am trying to figure out what is wrong, I usually wind up frustrated because I don't find anything that really seems logical or helpful. So, I have really given up. If I (or my child) is sick, and I don't know what is wrong... I go to the doctor! Report
I try to start my day with a workout. Whether it be on the elliptical or strength training, I do not feel 100% for the day if I miss my workout. Report
A comment for SUEBEE42. I also have Renaud's and have had it ever since I dropped below 120 pounds or so. Both my brother and my aunt complained about this when they lost weight as well. I guess it is more common than I thought!

My big problem with it is that I often get very painful chillblains as well. I don't mind the lack of circulation so much, but the chillblains are problematic. Report
I have had both positive and unhelpful experiences from looking up symptoms on the web. I agree that you can give yourself a pretty good scare when researching on your own. I still believe that it's best to be as well informed as you can be. Report
I have learned a lot from the web and SP health articles and after reading them and just thinking about them when I go to the doctor I have more questions on certain things and I am for sure more aware of everything now. I used to let things go and not worry about anything and now that's not the case. My husband tries to ban me from it because he thinks I freak out about it but that's not the case. The internet can be good for some things can't it. Just don't take it out of proportion. Report
I have Renaud's Phenomenon, and when I went to do some research on it, I did get more than I bargained for... there are two general causes... one is a secondary symptom of a host of scary medical problems (joy), and the other can be best summed up as *shrug shoulders*. It just happens. LOL!

Oddly, I had it in high school, when I was thin, and it went away when I got fat. Now that I'm a healthy weight again, it's back. But I'd rather have to run my fingers under warm water on a cold day to get my circulation back than be fat again. ;)

I've looked into treatment for it, and the side effects from the medication are scarier than the symptoms of this phenomenon. No thanks! Report
I use the internet; I read in my medical journals; I use Web-MD and the Mayo clinic site for information. Other sites that I look at sometimes will suggest new meds that have been used for my illnesses and since my physician is willing to talk with me and try new things, I have had a positive experience using the internet. I had read of a drug that a Rheumatologist in California was using for fibromyalgia. My physician researched it and contacted the Rheumatologist and then gave me a prescription for the medication. It helped. The information gathered on the internet must be used as a tool along with other references. Report
I worked as a nurse, so I've spent years reading medical books. The internet just makes it much faster to find information. Report
I will look online & then ask those around me in the medical field if what I found was close enough to what a doctor would tell me. My sister & BIL have 35+ years of medical experience between them and 2 of my best friends have 10+ years experience between them. I generally ask more than 1 person and if they agree, then I go with what I found on the internet. A lot of times though, I look to different sites for the same information. If I find 3 sites with the same information & studies/articles to back it up, I will go with it. Keep in mind I am never looking up serious conditions. Report
I have looked online, but I don't let information online stress me out. I figured they are just providing information to any and all possibilities. That doesn't mean it's something, that I personally will every have to worry about. But then I feel this way about any and all information that I obtain online. Besides, the information provided is never meant to replace any professional. And it could be tainted with a lot of personal opinions. We never really know what the quality of that information is going to be. It certainly isn't personalized. It's very general.

I usually just glance around at the information provided. Sometimes just to create a list of questions to ask my doctor, when I visit him next. Just because it's in writing, doesn't make it fact. We all need to remember this. Report
Yes, there are people who are hypochondriacs. We really don't need a new word for a real attribute. They were/are quite capable of driving the Dr's and their families nuts.
So? Nothing new here.
On the other hand- nobody, but nobody, feels and experiences your body as you do. Nobody else is quite as invested in your health and well being. Being educated, paying attention, and learning is an important thing for each of us to do.
I've had some very bad run ins with Dr's who didn't have time. I am quite willing to take the time to find a Dr who listens. And I do my own research.
Case in point- I take Synthroid. Now, lots of folks take thyroid medicine, and will find themselves willy nilly put onto the latest generic of thyroid medicines. I was put on one that caused me tons of problems. When I tried to bring it up with one Dr I was pooh-pooed, but I checked further. Yes, generic means the same ACTIVE ingredient- but I was allergic to the INACTIVE ingredient. It made me feel paranoid. 15 years later, my niece was suddenly stressing, and going on Wellbutrin. I asked her- hey, hon, did you recently have your thyroid medication changed? Yup, she had. She switched back, and voila, went off the meds.
Most pharmacists can confirm this sort of thing.
Heigh ho. We learn as we go.
Take care, and keep on learning! Report
I am a nurse and I think internet health information can be a great tool if one uses it properly. It can alert you to some seemingly minor symptoms and prompt you to seek the advice of your MD, perhaps sparing your life in some cases. Sticking to web sites run by licensed physicians (such as or accredited hospitals and such is the route that is the smartest. There are a lot of so-called "medical" web sites that claim to have "new" information about health conditions and can lead people to an unhealthy paranoia about every little symptom they have, or steer them towards unhealthy supplements or useless remedies and such only to get their money. Report
As I am reading this I just blogged about how frustrating it was that I JUST did this. I have GAD, and I am the worst about doing this. I google or visit web md about everything...everyday. I think that finding a reason for what I am feeling makes me feel better. Honestly, I think as I sit here that the issues I have are health related due to being overweight--but googling it makes me thing it is not. It is not something I do on purpose, but I do it. Actually just realized it. Report
I appreciate the wealth of medical information that is available at our fingertips, but have only used it to better understand an illness someone has. I think self-diagnosis would be extremely dangerous. Report
like many things - using the internet for medical research is a tool. A wonderful tool if used well. We use it regularly and love it. I have learned SO much! I can easily see how cyberchondria can develop. But love to find out about every little thing so i feel prepared with a list of questions for my dr when i arrive. Very helpful. Report
I get frustrated with doctors having their "favorite flavor of the month" with tests. As an older woman they want all these tests done just because I 'might' have that disease. A majority of the time those things really have something to do with heredity. I know there are exceptions, but when I did have something that was hereditary and told them I thought that was what I had (before internet and it was a 'female' thing) they wouldn't even consider it because all the symptoms were not what they thought they should be. Years later they did surgery for something else and guess what, I was right. Now when I go in and they want to run all those tests (mammogram, colonoscopy) I really feel that I should worry more about some other things because of certain surgeries I've had and because of heredity. But because they are so insistant on some of those things, they make me worry more than is necessary. So I think I get more concerned after visiting the docot than after I have looked on the internet. OK, there. I've finished venting. Report
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