Cyberchondria - Hypochondria and Internet Addiction
Am I a Cyberchondriac?
I’ve been sick ever since I visited WebMD. I’m dizzy this morning, and last week there was that mysterious rash. Oh, yeah, the headache that I had on Friday is back. Ouch, my toes are tingling where I was sitting on my feet.
Where’s my computer? I’d better consult my favorite Web Doctor to see what’s wrong with me. It’s probably something really bad. I could pay my doctor $90 for an office visit, but he never takes me seriously. Anyway, I can find out what’s wrong with a few clicks of the mouse!
Search for Symptoms on the Internet
So let’s see: dizziness, headache, tingling, fatigue—I Just remembered I’m tired, too— Hit SEARCH.
Uh, oh…. Fibromyalgia, Multiple Sclerosis, Brain Tumor… I knew I didn’t feel well! I’m sicker than I thought! Better find an emergency room. I’ll just print out this list of symptoms to show the doctors as they might not realize how serious this is…
Cyberchondria - Search The Web for Health Advice
Darn doctors in the ER didn't think there was anything wrong. "Take two aspirin and call tomorrow if you feel worse," they said.
More research... Look at the other symptoms for Fibromyalgia… muscle pain, anxiety, depression, headaches… yeah, I got it! In fact, I’m feeling worse! It’s making me depressed and anxious to know I’m so sick. Wait, maybe it’s something worse. Look up symptoms for MS. I could have MS… I’m really sick. I’m going to bed. Wait… let me take my laptop…
Definitions of Cyberchondria and Hypochondria
Cyberchondria: n an unfounded anxiety concerning the state of one's health brought on by visiting health and medical websites. (Dictionary.Com)
Hypochrondria: n an excessive preoccupation with one's health, usually focusing on some particular symptom, as cardiac or gastric problems. 2. excessive worry or talk about one's health. (Dictionary.Com)
Techno-Savvy Hypochondriacs Invent New Term
Laugh if you will, but cyberchondria is a growing problem among the techno-savvy hypochondriacs of the world.
Hypochondria has been elevated to new heights by the advent of the World Wide Web. It’s even been given a new name: Cyberchondria. A vast number of websites cater to those who want to find out more about their health and their symptoms. While medical sites provide invaluable information and insights to many people, they can create havoc in the mind of a cyberchondriac who has an excessive preoccupation with his health.
Where did the term "Cyberchondria" come from?
A review in the British Medical Journal publication Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry from 2003 says that the word “cyberchondria” was coined in the late 1990s or early 2000’s. It was used in 2001 in an article in the United Kingdom newspaper The Independentto describe "the excessive use of internet health sites to fuel health anxiety." It has since been used in prestigious medical journals as well as in newspapers and on internet sites. In 2008, “cyberchondria” was Word of the Year for Webster’s New World Dictionary.
Guide to Diseases
Cyberchondria Is Fueled by Easy Internet Access to Medical Information
The internet fuels hypochondria in a way that wasn’t possible before technology gave anyone with a computer easy access to in-depth medical information. In the past, hypochondriacs got medical information from friends, medical TV shows or the library. Now, the computer savvy cyberchondriac can get endless information from a long list of websites catering to those who wish to be more informed about their ailments. The internet provides an extensive menu of diseases and ailments, treatments, diagnostics and prognoses. Just by keying in a few symptoms, a wide selection of possible diseases will pop up. Take your choice, it’s hypochondriac heaven!
Brian Fallon, MD, professor of psychiatry at Columbia University and a leading researcher and expert on hypochondria believes that the internet has changed things for the worse for hypochondriacs. He believes that 90% of hypochondriacs who have access to the internet become cyberchondriacs. Dr. Fallon says, "Cyberchondria can be a terrible, devastating disease in the sense that the individual focuses on nothing other than checking their symptoms on the Internet and it destroys their lives."
The Urban Dictionary agrees with Dr. Fallon as it defines Cyberchondria: "When one become so obsessed with medical websites on the internet that they diagnose themselves with certain illnesses that more often then not they don't have, thus making the situation worse."
More recent studies have supported Dr. Fallon's observations. Easy availability of extensive information on health issues allows cyberchondriacs to instantly access volumes of worrisome details, causing more distress and anxiety.
Unfortunately, mixed in with reliable and well researched sources, are endless accounts by non-medical people, quasi-experts and people who just make stuff up. There are message boards where people without any medical knowledge at all give medical advice to each other. There are Q & A sites where people ask medical questions and a dozen people vying for a "best answer award" might give flip answers or information from a non-reliable source - there's usually no way to tell.
While providing useful information for people who want to be their own health advocates, the internet can also distort the severity of symptoms and give people a false impression of how often certain symptoms lead to serious disease.
Research into Cyberchondria
Eric Horvitz and Ryen White, Microsoft Research Specialists, conducted the first studies of cyberchondriacs (Cyberchondria: Studies of the escalation of medical concerns in Web search. 2009). They found several dangers in the information gathered through web searches.
The Real Dangers of Cyberchondria:
- People generally believed that the higher the diseases were to the top of the search engine results, the higher the likelihood of someone having that disease. This is not true as top search engine results have more to do with mathematical algorithms based on keyword appearances, links and clicks on a page.
- Websites linked symptoms to a life-threatening disease much more often than the disease was likely to occur. For example, if you type in “Headache”, about 25% of the results might list brain tumor as one of the causes. In reality, a brain tumor only occurs in about one in 50,000 people.
- The third danger of web searches is that information can come from unreliable sources or it can be outdated. Horvits and White found that 75% of people who search for health information never check either the source of the information or the date of the information they found in their search.
- Web based medical searches can increase anxiety in many people. In cyberchondriacs, anxiety escalates with each new illness associated with the symptoms they search. Horvitz and White (2009) found that most people report low anxiety about their health, but that anxiety levels increased in two thirds of those who did their own web based health research.
Tips for Using Internet Health Searches
- Always check dates and sources. Be sure the information you get is not only from reliable sources, but that it is current.
- Do not take advice from non professionals at message boards, discussion forums or Q & A sites.
- Remember that a trained professional will take the whole picture into consideration including your risk factors and prevalence of the disease. Talk to your doctor if your have health issues that are causing you distress.
- If you have symptoms that require a doctor's care and believe that you've discovered something pertinent to your situation, print out the information and take it with you to the doctor for him to evaluate. While some doctors may not take kindly to this, most realize that their patients will use the internet to research their illnesses before coming in for an office visit.
- Limit the time you spend searching the internet for health symptoms. The more time you spend on the internet researching health problems, the more anxiety you are likely to cause yourself.
Note about Cyberchondriac Quiz
Note about Quiz: This Cyberchondria Quiz was designed to be a fun quiz. It was not designed by a medical or mental health professional, and is not meant to be used as a diagnostic tool. It will give you some food for thought, and I hope you find it interesting!
Cyberchondriac Quiz - Are You a Cyberchondriac?
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Get Health Information from Trusted Sources
There are some things you can do to ensure that the health information you get from the internet is reliable. The first and most important thing to do is to check your sources. Some reliable sites are those written by health care professionals with good credentials or well-funded research non-profit organizations. Here are a few:
Healthy Use of the Internet
While there are different levels of severity of hypochrondria and cyberchondria, these conditions can cause serious anxiety, stress and depression resulting in both physical and mental health issues.
The vast amount of information on the internet makes research in any area of interest easy and quick. Users are able to find almost anything related to their interests including everything related to their mental and physical health. It isn't even necessary to sit at a computer as all of this information is available on cell phones, iPads and Kindles. It is estimated that about seven million Americans search the internet for health related information. This article was not written to discourage people from becoming better informed about their health, medications or treatments. It is meant to caution those who rely extensively on the internet as a self-diagnostic tool to second guess their doctors. Take the Cyberchondriac Quiz above to find out if you are too obsessed with internet health websites!
Now excuse me, I think I need to find out why I have this headache...
Copyright @2011 Stephanie Henkel
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Studies of Cyberchondria
- Cyberchondria: Studies of the Escalation of Medical Concerns in Web Search - Microsoft Research
A study of Cyberchondria by Ryen White and Eric Horvitz (November 2008).
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