Scitech | Lost In Transcription: Confessions of a hypochondriac

Considering online symptom searching and digital self-diagnosing

I live in a world where I equate caffeine headaches with brain tumours instead of coffee binges, where numbness in my arm must be an indication of spontaneous paralysis rather than having slept on it “wrong.” Heart attack false alarms are a monthly occurrence, and quite often, my symptoms are magically identical to those of the patient on last night’s episode of Grey’s Anatomy. My world is hypochondria.

Carpal tunnel syndrome, meningitis, liver failure, kidney failure, spinal muscular atrophy, Dengue fever – these are only a small sampling of conditions whose symptoms I have felt vividly. This past summer, I visited my local walk-in clinic five times in four weeks complaining of headaches, convinced I had a brain tumour. Once, the physician “soothed” my concerns by listing off a string of symptoms that would have had to be present if there was something serious to worry about. Of course, by my next visit, I had produced them all.

Finally, to relieve my concerns, the clinic agreed to x-ray my head, and while they found nothing big, scary, or tumour-like taking over my skull, the x-ray did reveal an interesting surprise in my nose: a deviated septum I’d never known of. The doctor turned to me and asked, “were you dropped on your head as a baby?” I’m sure she was insinuating more than the irregularity of my septum.

I think I first knew I had a problem when I heard myself say, “Well, I’m worried I might develop schizophrenia, since I don’t have a very good sense of smell.” Turns out, I completely misread the web site from which I was attempting to self-diagnose.

I frequently use the Internet to aid and abet my hypochondriac tendencies. When I become attuned to several new symptoms, my choice consultant is The beautiful thing about this site is its multiple symptom checker, but, according to its diagnosis, I have apparently been suffering from leprosy for over a year now.

Should we all be a little concerned about having diagnoses such as this one only a few clicks away? Will so much readily accessible information convert users into “cyberchondriacs?” After talking to Dr. Robert Franck, Clinical Director of McGill Mental Health Services, I came to realize that an increase in information availability can’t be to blame as long as the site is reputable, and as long as users aren’t searching out of anxiety.

“You have to think about why you’re looking for the information,” Franck says.

Dr. Gordon Asmundson, professor and director of the Anxiety and Illness Behaviours Lab at the University of Regina, has a similar view.

“Sources of medical information aren’t necessarily a bad thing,” he says. “For certain people, they can become a habitual source of reassurance that makes them feel better in the short term, but not in the long term.”

But Asmundson’s research has also led him to online support groups and discussion boards for people with hypochondria, which actually fuel rather than dissipate anxiety. He says that in these cases, the Internet may be harmful.

“[It] means unlimited access to people with shared experiences, something we didn’t have 20 years ago,” Asmundson said.

Basically, we have to accept a little more responsibility for our online searches, and google cautiously. Or, maybe just avoid these sites. Easier said than done for some of us.

As Franck made clear, if you look hard enough, you can always feel a pain or an itch somewhere on your body.

“These things are natural,” he says. “If you feel a bump or an ache, chances are it’s just telling you you’re alive.”

I can accept that. The day will come when my liver fails, my heart stops beating, and my cells start multiplying out of control, but for now I’ll be thankful that all I’m really suffering from is not suffering from anything at all.