Hypochondria and the Internet

by Eileen Bailey Health Writer

We all become anxious about our health at one time or another. Health anxiety, also referred to as hypochondria is "a belief that physical symptoms are signs of serious illness, even when there is no medical evidence to support the presence of an illness." [1] Those with hypochondria are often thought to purposely make up symptoms but that is not the case and are sometimes dismissed by doctors as "attention seeking." But hypochondria is a real disorder and those with it are often unable to control their worrying.

The internet, a vast source of health information, can sometimes feed into the fears and worries of those with health anxiety. According to a Pew Research survey, more Americans go online for health information every day than visit a doctor. Back in 2002, almost ten years ago, the survey revealed more than 6 million Americans using the internet to find health information on a daily basis. [2]

While it is good to be an educated patient, this constant search for information about your health can cause even more anxiety:

  • Not all health sites are reputable. Anyone can post something on the internet, even if the information is wrong or misleading. There are many accurate, reputable websites but there are just as many that offer quick-fix cures or alternative treatments that waste your money but don't have any evidence to support their claims.

  • Vague symptoms can be over-researched. It is easy to get carried away looking up every little symptom, finding a number of conditions or diseases that may have similar symptoms.

  • Information is not balanced. Often, when looking up illnesses, we tend to focus on the negative information rather than balancing our view and looking for solutions rather than harping on the worst-case scenario.

This isn't to say we should not be involved in our health care or learn about our illness or medical condition. I very much believe in being an educated and involved patient, one who works in a partnership with our doctor to find the best possible treatment for our unique situation. I believe that doctors should treat patients, not symptoms. But that said, sometimes, too much information works against us. When searching on the internet for health information, keep the following in mind:

Your doctor is your partner. That means you should not tell him how to treat you and he shouldn't give you orders on how to care for yourself without a discussion about what is best. It is your job, as a patient, to know about your condition and to share what you know. It is also your job to listen to your doctor and have an open discussion about treatment options.

You are entitled to a second opinion if you don't agree with your doctor. If you have valid concerns about the opinions or suggested treatment your doctor has given you, you have every right to seek out a second opinion. However, it probably isn't in your best interest to "doctor shop" until you find a doctor that agrees with you or will continue to run tests or perform more procedures just because you think it is best.

Be aware of your body but don't become fixated on it. When you are aware of your body, you know when something is "off." You know if there are pains or feelings that shouldn't be there. When this happens, consult your doctor. At the same time, if you don't have high blood pressure, you probably don't need to be stopping at every blood pressure monitoring machine just because you passed by or you don't need to be keeping track of your pulse several times a day. Work together with your doctor to decide what self-checks you should be doing on a daily or regular basis and which really don't need to be done.

Learn what websites provide reputable information and stick to searching on those. Personal websites usually offer personal opinions or personal stories and may or may not be backed up with reputable medical information. Instead, stick to researching symptoms on those sites that offer information you can count on (HealthCentral is one). If you have a question about which sites are reputable, talk with your doctor and make a list of a few specific sites. Resist the urge to endlessly search every site.

Bring information you found to the doctor. If you find information you believe is relevant to your condition, bring it with you to the doctor and ask his opinion about the information. He should be able to expand on the information, explaining why it is or isn't relevant to your situation.

Don't, however, expect your doctor to weed through pages and pages of information. While this information may be important, talking to you about your specific symptoms is more important. Make sure your time with your doctor is balanced: educating yourself about your condition and talking about your specific symptoms.


[1] "Hypochondria," Reviewed 2010, Aug 9, Staff Writer, PubMed Health, A.D.A.M. Medical Encylclopedia

[2] "Web Fertile Ground for Hypochondriacs," 2002, June 25, Russell Shaw, USA Today

Eileen Bailey
Meet Our Writer
Eileen Bailey

Eileen Bailey is an award-winning author of six books on health and parenting topics and freelance writer specializing in health topics including ADHD, Anxiety, Sexual Health, Skin Care, Psoriasis and Skin Cancer. Her wish is to provide readers with relevant and practical information on health conditions to help them make informed decisions regarding their health care.