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How to Recognize Internet Hypochondria

October 16th, 2008

internet-hypochondria.jpgThe free availability of medical information on the Internet has spawned a new syndrome known as Internet hypochondria or cyberchondria. Fortunately, in most cases this is a fairly harmless condition that can be prevented and treated with a good dose of common sense. This article by Anne Solomon describes how this relatively recent phenomenon has developed and advises us to be careful not to get too carried away in our analysis of online medical literature.


The web abounds with websites dealing with medical topics. If you are diagnosed with a medical problem, there are sites which can educate and inform you and those around you about what it is and how to manage your symptoms. Sites can connect you with other sufferers and update you on new medical treatments as they become available. As a tool for self-diagnosis, however, this fountain of medical information can be less helpful and the first step on the road to cyberchondria.

Doctors are well aware of ‘medical student’ syndrome. It’s a common phenomenon amongst medical students. As they learn about diseases and symptoms, some begin to believe that they themselves have the disease. Of course they rarely do, but it is easy for the imagination to run riot – and even more so for those of us with far less medical insight. Anxious people find a disease that seems to fit their symptoms and the quest for an answer overtakes common sense. One dire possibility leads to another. Since most symptoms can be characteristic of many diseases, people can immerse themselves in the potential threats. It may even prevent some from getting medical attention for fear of hearing the worst.

Even authoritative medical websites can fuel irrational but usually perfectly normal fears about our own mortality. Multiple sclerosis is one of the most common diseases that too much medical information induces people to fear they may have. As with many conditions, a number of its symptoms are ‘non-specific’. Some symptoms of even very serious diseases can be completely normal in the absence of other signs. Even specialists battle to diagnose multiple sclerosis, which like other autoimmune diseases, does not manifest with symptoms that allow it to be quickly identified. It is only too easy to fear the worst.

Good medical websites can strike fear into the reader precisely because they are authoritative. Far worse are irresponsible commercial sites flogging dubious cures in the guise of giving useful information. Unscrupulous operators may even deliberately exploit these ambiguities – and it is medicine’s grey areas that make diagnosis a specialist domain in the first place.

The good news is that even if you have been carried away or scared witless by Internet information that suggests you are sicker than you thought, you are probably not a hypochondriac, Internet or otherwise. Hypochondria is regarded as a medical illness with specific features. Sufferers are concerned specifically with the idea that they have a serious or terminal illness (rather than obsessing over their specific symptoms). Unlike even the worst worrier, true hypochondriacs persist in this belief even after medical reassurance.

Medical websites can help and even save lives. The keys are to be selective about which sites you consult and to recognize the limits of your own medical expertise. If in doubt, consult your doctor. If you don’t believe the real live expert, then maybe you really are a hypochondriac and it’s time to turn off that computer!



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