Danger — Your Computer Can Harm Your Health

by Carole Jackson, Bottom Line Health

You know “Dr. Google,” don’t you? He’s become the go-to guy for most folks wondering whether that odd and slightly painful bump on the shoulder is something to worry about… if queasiness that won’t quit might be a side effect of that new medication… or whether a headache that started a day and a half ago actually might be a lethal brain tumor.

New research shows that 80% of regular Internet users now go online with their questions about health and medicine — it’s easy, fast and free, and there’s a wealth of information. Most of us benefit greatly from having so much excellent information at our fingertips. But for some of us, online health information can become an obsession that turns us into “cyberchondriacs” who are not only tedious to sit next to at dinner parties but who actually end up suffering acutely from psychological distress.

Being constantly worried about your health is a hallmark of the complex psychological syndrome doctors call hypochondriasis. For people with hypochondriac tendencies, being able to go online to rapidly gratify an urgent “need” for medical information can spiral out of control. They have an addiction-like difficulty controlling this behavior — getting answers may help them feel calm for a little while, but the anxiety returns and so back they go to their computers. It never ends, and it makes life miserable for them and — it must be said! — for the people close to them.

Brian Fallon, MD, MPH, MEd, professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University and director of the University’s Center for the Study of Neuroinflammatory Disorders & Behavioral Medicine, is coauthor with Carla Cantor of the book Phantom Illness: Shattering the Myth of Hypochondria. He told me that between 5% and 10% of the population have hypochondriacal tendencies. According to Dr. Fallon, their exaggerated fear of illness usually is the result of a chemical imbalance in the brain. This problem is found equally in men and women, though it is somewhat more prevalent in younger (teens and young adults) than in older people.

The Internet Feeds the Fear

Everyone is more aware of health news nowadays because it’s widely covered by the media and medications and medical services are aggressively advertised. This, too, feeds cyberchondria — vulnerable people see or hear these stories and begin to think that they may have the conditions that are mentioned.

Making matters worse: Dr. Fallon points out that a pitfall of seeking health information online is that it’s hard to know what’s true. Health-content providers may be selling products and may or may not check facts. Bloggers can say whatever they want, whether it’s true or not. Minor problems can be made to seem more dramatic. And, since cyberchondriacs often are quite intelligent, their awareness that not all the information they find online is reliable inspires them to conduct even more searches in a quest to verify or debunk what they’ve seen online… and the beat goes on.

Though there’s surprisingly little research available about this condition, Dr. Fallon told me that he’s working to change that. Preliminary results from his research confirm what makes intuitive sense — online health research hurts rather than helps these anxious and vulnerable people. “Cyberchondria can mess up your life,” Dr. Fallon said.

Handle with Care

Anyone and everyone who searches online for health information needs to be judicious when choosing Internet sites. The best places to start are the ones that offer information provided by physicians and other well-trained health-care professional — and, said Dr. Fallon, “all the better if these pros are affiliated with respected medical institutions.” The most trustworthy information will be presented in a balanced way, even including alternative hypotheses. Dr. Fallon advises avoiding sponsored content, which is not objective, and health blogs, which often are neither objective nor entirely factual.

Further, Dr. Fallon suggests that people who have a tendency to “catastrophize” in their lives — imagining small items to be giant catastrophes — may be well-advised to avoid using the Internet for health information altogether, since doing so is likely to lead to intense anxiety and distress. He said that people generally are aware of whether or not this advice applies to them. “If you have a high level of health anxiety, you already know it,” he said, noting that if you have failed to recognize this trait in yourself, you will surely have heard about it from frustrated friends and loved ones who have commented on your gloom-and-doom tendencies.

Going online for medical information can be a difficult habit to break, but the good news, Dr. Fallon said, is that for many people who quit the habit, the most intense feelings last for no more than a day or two. And if you can stop stoking your health fears with online research for one to three weeks by distracting yourself (try a walk, a talk with a good friend or some other activity to shift your focus), your anxiety will decrease, he added — and then you may be able to successfully rely on information and advice from your doctors who know you.

If you can’t stop the cyberchondria cycle on your own, there is one important bit of research you should do — ask someone you trust for the name of a psychotherapist. According to Dr. Fallon, people who have severe health anxiety can be effectively treated with cognitive behavioral therapy and, if necessary, antidepression medication, such as fluoxetine (Prozac) or fluvoxamine (Luvox), to help restore the chemical balance in their brains.


Brian Fallon, MD, MPH, MEd, professor of clinical psychiatry and director, Center for the Study of Neuroinflammatory Disorders & Biobehavioral Medicine, Columbia University, New York City, and coauthor with Carla Cantor of Phantom Illness: Shattering the Myth of Hypochondria (Mariner).