By Jennifer Thomas
MONDAY, Jan. 17 (HealthSCOUT) -- For Melissa Woyechowsky, the fear she had a terrible disease started with tingling and numbness in her legs. She searched the Web, ended up in a neurological chat room, and came to a devastating conclusion -- she must have multiple sclerosis.
"I was reading people's posts, and it sounded exactly like what I had," Woyechowsky says. "I was sure I was dying."
In fact, several doctor visits and hundreds of dollars in tests later, Woyechowsky was diagnosed with a different disorder: hypochondria, or the excessive fear of illness.
The Internet is enabling anyone with a computer easy access to an unprecedented array of medical information. Most doctors say the Web helps patients find the latest in treatment possibilities. The downside: in hypochondriacs, the Internet stirs up debilitating fear.
"The Internet doesn't cause people to become hypochondriacs, but since the Web has so much health information on it some of those folks will gravitate toward it," says Dr. David Ginsberg, a New York University Medical Center psychiatrist. "It can inadvertently reinforce their fears."
That's what happened to Woyechowsky. The 30-year-old real estate broker from the San Diego area spent five hours a day on her laptop in multiple sclerosis chat rooms. Her heart was beating so rapidly she was afraid to drive. After several months, she didn't want to go out in public.
An estimated 4 to 6 percent of a doctor's patient roster are considered hypochondriacs, says Dr. Brian Fallon, an associate professor of psychiatry at Columbia University in New York and co-author of Phantom Illness: Shattering the Myths of Hypochondria.
For them, a headache is not caused by stress, but a brain tumor. Fatigue is not attributable to a poor night's sleep, but AIDS. In a desperate quest to reassure themselves, they may visit doctor after doctor. Even after tests rule out a particular disease, they feel little relief. "The fact that there is ambiguity becomes a porthole for someone with an anxiety disorder to enter and expand upon and enhance their anxiety until it becomes a huge source of fear," he says. They become so obsessed with the fear they let it interfere with their day-to-day lives.
Until recently, the worried sick had to dig out medical reference books to get information. But now, it's at their fingertips. The Internet is home to medical journals and chat rooms for comparing symptoms. It also offers sites such as the "Wonderful World of Disease," which tells in explicit detail what happens to the body when struck by rare diseases like hantavirus, Dengue fever and the ebola virus.
Needed: 'Appropriate context'
Part of the problem is that not all health information on the Internet is accurate. In other cases, the scary-sounding side effects of drugs, or banner headlines that scream of disease outbreaks, when taken in context, pose minuscule risk to most people.
Ironically, the Internet led Woyechowsky to treatment. When she came across a Web site for anxiety, the symptoms sounded familiar. A psychiatrist prescribed Prozac, an anti-depressant that has also been found to relieve hypochondria.
Finally, she started feeling better.
"The Internet can help you or hurt you," says Woyechowsky, who has started a Web site and online support group for people with anxiety problems. "The Internet was a big part of my problem. It was also a big part of my cure."
What To Do
How can you tell if you are a hypochondriac? If you answer "yes" to several of these questions, you may want to see a doctor about anxiety:
Do you worry about your health more than most people?
Do you get the feeling people aren't taking your illnesses seriously enough?
Do you often have the symptoms of a very serious disease?
Do you often worry about the possibility that you have a serious illness?
For online support and information about hypochondria, visit Melissa Woyechowsky's Health Anxiety and Hypochondria Web site.
The American Psychological Association discusses the broader area of anxiety disorders.
SOURCES: Interviews with Brian Fallon, M.D., associate professor of
psychiatry, Columbia University, New York, ; David Ginsberg, M.D., psychiatrist,
New York University Medical Center; Melissa Woyechowsky, San Diego area
real estate broker