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When I was in massage school, third semester meant it was time to take pathology. On the first day the instructor warned us that at some time during the semester as we learned about various diseases and afflictions we would think we had them. We all laughed when she said it. However, over the next several weeks, each of us at some point were indeed convinced we had some sort of something serious wrong. Since our pathology instructor was also a medical doctor we, of course, we went to her with every complaint which she assured us would go away, and probably recur several times over the semester. By the time school was over the symptoms would most likely – almost miraculously – disappear forever.

Back then the computer was not as influential as it is now. It was not used as much by us for research and there were not many medical websites with vast amounts of information – at least not like today. Today there are an uncountable amount of sites on virtually any topic possible, and medical information ranks way up there as the most available and most often searched. This means everyone who has access to the Internet is capable of looking up what it means to have a headache, belly pain, double vision or any other physical or mental symptom.

What Is Cyberchondria?

Cyberchondria is defined as a form of nosophobia – or fear of having a disease. It has the added dimension of a person being able to research his or her symptoms, whether real or imagined, on the Internet. That person now thinks he or she has the disease described. It does not refer to the individual who occasionally checks out a medical website, but more to the person who obsessively researches a collection of relatively mundane symptoms believing he or she has some serious affliction.

Cyberchondria is a somewhat more intense version of what we and other healthcare professionals experience in pathology classes. Our minds are highly suggestible when it comes to thinking something is wrong with us. Some individuals get a pain in their abdomen and think the worst, some ignore it and others go online to get a second opinion. With healthcare costs constantly on the rise it may seem faster and cheaper than a doctor’s visit, but cyberchondria can ultimately be costly. An inaccurate diagnosis can result in a person not seeking or putting off appropriate healthcare, taking self-prescribed over-the-counter medications or taking medications given to him or her by well-meaning friends.

A Harris Poll conducted in 2010 found that 79 percent of adults were online and that 88 percent of them (or, in numbers, 175 million individuals) had used the Internet to look up health information, with about half of them saying they had done a search based on discussion with a physician. Not all of them are cyberchondriacs. That line is crossed when the searching becomes obsessive and begins to fall into the category of an anxiety disorder – a kind of addiction – one that rules the life of the searcher. A headache becomes a stroke or a tumor, a chronic cough turns into lung cancer, a misplaced item evolves into Alzheimer’s disease.

Commonly Searched Symptoms

The following are some commonly searched symptoms and their most likely causes:

  • Headaches – The reality of a headache, or even chronic headaches, is not that it is a brain tumor. More likely it is a tension headache, a migraine or even sinus pain. If a headache persists for several days without relief, becomes so bad that it is unbearable or is accompanied by vision problems, don’t try and self-diagnose -get yourself to a doctor.
  • Cough – Most likely this is due to an allergy, cold, postnasal drip or acid reflux and not lung cancer. Staying hydrated helps, as does taking various over-the-counter cough syrups and allergy medications. Coughing up blood is another story, and a doctor’s evaluation is needed as soon as possible.
  • Chest Pain – In a person younger than 45, chest pains are rare. While you should never ignore intense chest pain (call 911), most chest pain is simply caused by muscle strain from heavy lifting, heartburn or gastric reflux.
  • Memory Loss, Forgetfulness – Many people equate perceived memory loss with the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, but less than 5 percent of the population under 65 is diagnosed with it. Memory loss is usually the result of fatigue, stress, dehydration, medication side effects or simply doing too much. In this day and age, with so much information overload, it is no surprise that we forget where we place our keys or accidentally leave our cell phone in the freezer.
  • Thirst – If a person is thirsty, it is probably because he or she is not drinking enough water and not because the person has diabetes. Thirst is the way of the body telling you to drink more water. The need for water varies from person to person. It depends on how much they exercise or how dry the air is. Any extreme weather – hot or cold – and certain medications, including diuretics, may cause dehydration. Even body weight is a factor. Make sure to drink plenty of water throughout the day. To figure out your basic need, multiply your body weight by .5 and you will get the number of ounces you should drink each day. (e.g. A 150-pound person should drink at least 75 ounces of water.) Coffee, tea, soft drinks and alcohol don’t count as they have a diuretic effect and ultimately just make you even thirstier. A diabetic feels the need to drink constantly and urinate frequently. They usually have other symptoms as well, including unexplained weight loss, blurry vision and extreme hunger.

If a symptom persists, by all means check it out on the Internet, but don’t become obsessed with a worst case scenario. Use the vast knowledge bank available to research an already diagnosed ailment. It is often helpful and even reassuring to get as much information as possible.’

The Internet can be a great tool. Many people have been helped by looking up symptoms or diseases and even using it to reach out to others, but self-diagnosis can be dangerous. If you or one of your clients experience symptoms you think may be a sign of something serious – make an appointment to see the doctor, someone who can make an accurate diagnosis – and don’t ever try to diagnose your client’s symptoms.

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