Almost everyone at some time becomes anxious about his health.  Even people who can stay calm through a stock market crash can get worried about new or nagging symptoms.  And while some anxiety about our health is perfectly normal, in some it can reach a level that interferes with day-to-day functioning and becomes incapacitating.  Even when it’s not that bad, anxiety about health is frequently misguided.  Your headache is thousands of times more likely to be due to muscle tension than a brain tumor, and all those brain tumor patient support websites you’re reading won’t make your tension headache any better.

The internet is a very powerful resource to help non-experts educate themselves about their health, but it also frequently escalates anxiety.  Two scientists at Microsoft published an article last month that studied how web search behavior can increase health-related anxiety.  The researchers call this cyberchondria – “the unfounded escalation of concerns about common symptomatology based on the review of search results and literature on the web.”

The researchers studied how people searched the web, and what patterns tended to increase or decrease their anxiety about their symptoms.  They found that many people, when searching the web for a symptom, mistake the rank order of search results as the order of likelihood of the diagnoses found.  For example, a search for “headache” will return lots of results about caffeine withdrawal, muscle tension and brain tumors (and lots of other causes).  But the order in which those results appear has nothing to do with the likelihood of these conditions.  Brain tumors may appear first simply because there is more written about brain tumors and more research being done on brain tumors, but they are exceedingly rare especially compared to common causes of headaches.

Many physicians went through a similar experience as medical students.  We would become convinced that we had whatever obscure disease we were studying.  The ongoing joke was “I think I have lupus, and I think you do too.”  The common theme between medical student anxiety and cyberchondria is access to information in great excess to judgment or experience.  Now, with the internet, we can all be first year medical students.

(Thanks to Timo K. for pointing me to the Microsoft article and to my cyberchondriac patients for realizing they probably don’t have lupus.)

Learn more:

Microsoft Research article:  Cyberchondria: Studies of the Escalation of Medical Concerns in Web Search

NY Times article: Microsoft Examines Causes of ‘Cyberchondria’