1. Health

Are You a Cyberchondriac?

Self-Diagnosis Can Lead to the Wrong Conclusions


Updated February 09, 2013

If you search the Internet for health-related information because you are suffering from new symptoms, and your goal is to self-diagnose, you may be suffering from cyberchondria.

A word first coined in the 1990s, cyberchondria results when someone with little or no medical training tries to diagnose herself by reviewing symptoms online, then determines she has some malady that is worse than what a doctor later diagnoses after putting the patient through a true diagnostic process.

Cyberchondria is the web-related, Internet-induced version of hypochondria.

Cyberchondria can create its own problems, even though it is not a real physical condition. With little background in understanding the body or its systems, the patient may come to conclusions that her symptoms represent a medical problem that is much worse than it is; a simple dermititis is thought to be a MRSA rash or an upset stomach is translated as ovarian cancer, for example.

With the fear and worry that result from the wrong diagnosis, the patient becomes anxious, upset or nervous prior to meeting with her doctor, then those emotions make the symptoms worse. The rash spreads or the nausea worsens, both in reaction to her fears, and not because she is any sicker.

Self-diagnosis through the use of the Internet can be problematic for a number of reasons:

First, the patient may not be translating her symptoms the same way a professional would, leading her in the wrong direction as she continues to do online research.

Second, the information she finds online may not be credible. She then compounds her fears, making her situation even worse.

Third, she may determine that her symptoms are less dire than they really are. She may choose not to pursue medical attention, thinking her symptoms point to something that does not require her to visit her doctor.

In November 2008, a report was issued by Microsoft researchers that showed the impact of self-diagnosis leading to cyberchondria. Specifically, they pointed to "escalation," meaning the online searcher continued to look at the medical problem that was worse, or more dire, than the diagnosis that was a more reasonable result or explanation, and less medically problematic.

If you think you are a victim of, or even guilty of cyberchondria, then there are some steps you can take to relieve it:

  1. Visit your doctor before you look online for information about your symptoms.
  2. Follow a prescribed process for self-diagnosis using the Internet, in a balanced manner.
  3. Stick to credible websites for your health information.
  4. Ask someone else to pursue the online symptom information alongside you to keep you grounded, so you won't spend time looking at problems that are beyond your probable diagnosis.

Learn more about cyberchondria and self-diagnosis:

"Sharing Internet Health Information with Your Doctor"

"Cyberchondria: Studies of the Escalation of Medical Concerns in Web Search"

"The Causes of Cyberchondria"

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