WE live in an age of instant information accessibility. The touch of a keyboard brings to life invaluable data on just about any conceivable topic or subject one can imagine.
Ours is the age that boasts self-awareness and self-reliance, and with so much information at our fingertips, so to speak, it has become a standard practice for millions of people to continuously scan the internet to seek information at the first sign of a physical symptom or malady.
While seeking to understand one’s state of health is definitely a step in the right direction, self-assessment should not be based on information posted online, even if the site claims it is a ‘medical site,’ or links itself to a doctor’s name, as there is no way of knowing whether or not their claim is authentic, or if the information is posted by individuals with proper medical credentials.
At one time, the practice of self-diagnosing was restricted primarily to those who owned medical textbooks. The world wide web has however made information freely available to anyone with an internet connection.
Even as far back as the early ’80s it was noted that millions of people were surfing more medical help sites than any other informational site available. A few years ago, Microsoft scientist Ryan White, along with his partner Eric Horvitz, decided to do further research on this practice.
After analyzing the internet behavior of over one million people who claimed to be experiencing symptoms from undisclosed conditions, and further surveying more that 500 Microsoft employees, they determined that over 75 percent of those seeking internet health informational aid failed to check either the date that the informational article was posted, or whether or not the author was a licensed physician.
What was even more disturbing was the fact that most of these individuals did not immediately seek the opinion of their family physician or licensed health practitioner to get the medical advice they required. Perhaps it was out of fear of having their condition confirmed as a disease, or because they did not have the necessary funds for proper treatment, but whatever the reason, they repeatedly resorted to the practice of self-diagnosing, and even worse; self-medicating.
The repeated practice of continuously accessing online data to self-diagnose was such a phenomenon that Whyte and Horvitz gave it a name: cyberchondria. To this day, eight out of every 10 internet users visit the web to get answers to health-related questions.
While there are credible websites such as those sponsored by the Mayo Clinic that provide key insights into identifying and even treating numerous ailments, physicians (and common sense) strongly warn against this practice as it can have serious implications.
Take, for example, the case of a 47-yearold we shall call Sandra.
Sandra, a financial advisor, began to experience throbbing headaches behind her eyes soon after she separated from her husband. Sandra not only worked long hours at her place of employment, but also consulted from her home as a personal accountant.
She was also raising two children, all the while battling through a difficult divorce. A typical day saw her wake up at six and go to bed past midnight.
Often tense and sleep deprived, Sandra attributed her headaches to her stressful lifestyle. With little free time, she often went online to read about the possible causes of “headache pain behind the eyes,” in the hope of getting reassurance for what she perceived to be stressrelated pain, and for getting tips on how to reduce the terrible throbbing that often caused her nausea.
The sites she frequented described her symptoms as being either cluster headaches, or possibly migraines brought on by stress. Other sites advised of sinus infection of sorts, while a few warned of brain tumours and strokes, but Sandra didn’t think that these life-threatening illnesses were the cause of her problem.
In the course of the next few months the headaches intensified both in frequency and severity. Convinced that she was now experiencing stress-related-migraines, and still unwilling to seek medical help, she now surfed sites that offered medication for treating the pain, as overthe- counter medication was no longer effective.
Sandra then began to order online products that promised relief from tension headaches and migraines. Unfortunately, the relief never came.
From bad to disastrous. The headaches continued, and believing that she was working too hard, she took a two-week rest-leave from her place of employment. But a few days later, disaster struck.
In the middle of the night, a particularly strong pain in her head woke her from sleep. So as not to awaken the children, she tried to make her way to the medicine cabinet in the dark, but her eyes would not focus, and even after she turned on the bathroom light she wasn’t able to see.
Sandra had lost her sight.
Panic struck, she called out to her children, who immediately called an ambulance. Sandra was admitted to the hospital where countless scans and lengthy tests revealed a tumour on her optic nerve. The specialist recommended immediate surgery, as a further delay would permanently compromise her vision.
Fortunately, Sandra’s story has a happy ending. The tumour turned out to be benign, but the time she wasted selfdiagnosing and self-medicating allowed the tumour to grow to the size of a large grape.
The growth was successfully removed, and over time she slowly regained her sight. However, by delaying seeing a doctor and opting to rely on information obtained on the internet, she subjected herself to needless headaches and came close to going blind.
A dangerous guessing game. People have an innate curiosity for wanting to know what is wrong with their body.
This in itself is totally harmless – actually, it can be most helpful in preventing certain types of injuries and even illness. But the problem arises not from educating oneself on basic knowledge of structure and function of the body, but from trying to ‘diagnose’ a physical problem without having full understanding of the human body and how it works; the nature of illness and disease and its impact on the body; and how symptoms are associated with certain diseases, all of which take years and years of study and internship to fully understand.
Although the internet is a superb tool for accessing information, when it comes to medical issues, the knowledge obtained should be utilized for informational purposes only, and not as a means of replacing your doctor or health practitioner. Much like Sandra, those who do so literally compromise their health, and possibly their life.
Heed the warnings. Medical experts warn against this practice, as it can not only lead to the hypochondriac behaviour of cyberchondria, but one can easily misdiagnose a problem, resulting in either ignoring a serious or even lifethreatening illness, or believing one has a debilitating disease when in fact the condition may not be serious at all.
Without a proper medical assessment, people run the risk of finding a disease to match their symptoms, instead of having a medical expert identify their condition through the symptoms they are experiencing, and treating the condition accordingly.
All’s well that ends well. Knowledge can be power, especially when it is applied to creating positive changes to your health maintenance and health education.
Instead of searching dozens of sites trying to determine the cause of your specific health issue, contact your health practitioner immediately, and allow him or her to physically assess your condition. You will save time, effort and money in the long run, not to mention hours of selfinduced stress trying to determine what exactly is ailing you.
Become more aware of your body; learn to recognize unusual symptoms and write them down, along with the date and time of day you experienced the symptoms so that you can describe them accurately and efficiently to your health practitioner.
Educate yourself on nutrition, and learn about the healing power of certain foods, and the destructive power of others, and eat accordingly.
Learn of the benefits of exercise, and begin a walking program now that spring is here.
For a more positive approach on life, learn to keep a distance from those that continually complain and have an eternally negative attitude. Surround yourself with people who are encouraging, supportive and upbeat.
Be good to yourself and take the time you need to look after your physical, mental, and emotional health.
And if you really want to use web-based information in a positive way, use it to read stories that are inspiring and uplifting; stories of those who have overcome oppression, illness and disease. These stories will give you the motivation you need to live each day to the fullest.