Dr. Joseph Sirven: Searching For Dr. Google

Published: Thursday, January 11, 2018 - 7:40am
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Dr. Joseph Sirven
Dr. Joseph Sirven

Sometimes searching your symptoms online can be dangerous to your health, our medical commentator Dr. Joseph Sirven explains.

I started the visit with, “How can I help you today?”

She responded with “I’m here because I typed all of my symptoms, which included tiredness, headache and whole body numbness, into Google and the results said that I needed to see a Neurologist. I am really scared."

I asked my patient to explain her symptoms. She kept repeating the fact that she continues to search endlessly online because she knows that something is wrong and the anxiety is impacting her life. I reassured her and tried to sort out what’s wrong.

After a comprehensive evaluation, she seemed perfectly healthy. I gave her my contact number so that she could reach me should anything change.

Given that the Internet is now the biggest source of health information, cases like this are increasingly common. There’s even a new term for it: “cyberchondria."

Cyberchondria is the condition of intense anxiety that occurs in relationship to excessive searching for healthcare information. It’s basically an exaggeration of what almost all of us do, which is online symptom checking.

However, searching your symptoms online seems to lead to more anxiety and even obsessiveness to further search symptoms without finding any relief in the information. This is a version of what was previously known as hypochondria, which is now termed “illness anxiety." 

In Britain, health expenditures have actually risen as primary care physicians over-investigate the symptoms that are often proffered by these anxious patients.

Psychologists have suggested criteria for abnormal online searching that includes: checking online for symptom information 1 to 3 hours per day at least 3 to 4 times per day, having a fear of suffering from several different diseases, and the search information actually makes them feel more anxious.

Fortunately, there are excellent treatment options for this condition including distraction, psychotherapy and cognitive behavior therapy.

So if you find yourself anxious after inputting your symptoms into a search bar, let me quote Dr. Google’s most effective therapy and the treatment that I offered to my patient, “Stop googling your symptoms. It could save you an expensive trip to the doctor.”

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