All About Multiple Sclerosis

More MS news articles for January 2003

Internet hypochondria

In all my web searching I never found a site that said 'You're probably fine.' Rather, it was all death-and-disease, all the time.

Tuesday, January 28, 2003
Ceinwen Giles

I was recently diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a brain tumour and macular degeneration.

"All three at once?" I hear you ask."That's pretty bad luck," you must be thinking (along with "What is macular degeneration anyway?").

I suppose it would be more precise to say that I diagnosed myself with these diseases. It would also, perhaps, be more accurate to say that I don't actually have any of them, but that, for a short period of time, I thought that I did. I became swept up in the mania of hypochondria, you see, and my insanity was aided by what I have now decided is the evil of all evils: the Internet.

My mother used to say that a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing; the Internet demonstrates this point beautifully. Oh sure, these days everyone is concerned about the proliferation of porn, but the medical information on the Net is also widespread, disturbing and -- for those prone to, shall we say, extreme concern for their health -- dangerous.

Armed with a modem and a few vague symptoms, were all able to gain a little bit of knowledge about a lot of diseases anytime, anywhere. If you didn't feel sick before you typed "headaches and nausea" into Google, you sure as hell will afterwards.

My own saga began when I developed muscle spasms in my legs. One evening I headed to an Internet cafe to see what could be troubling me and I found out that there were, in fact, a lot of terrible diseases with which I could be troubled.

Before I knew it, I had been sucked into the dark world of (I think it was)

Did I have hypothyroidism? Lou Gehrig's disease? Malaria? Were my spasms accompanied by tingling? Rashes? Headaches? Fever? Occasional blindness? Hair loss?

Did my tongue have spots? Was I having memory difficulties?

By the time I finished reading what I think was called, I was so stressed and fatigued that I couldn't remember if stress and fatigue were the symptoms or causes of my mysterious deadly illness.

The trouble with my little bit of Internet-based knowledge was that it was compounded by fear and information overload.

Scared that there was something wrong with me, I began to read more and more. And once I realized how many diseases there are out there (quite a large number) I developed a semi-encyclopedic knowledge of a variety of symptoms without knowing exactly which diseases they were affiliated with.

The marks on my back: sunburn or a sign of HIV? Migraine headaches: blood clot or too much MSG? Tingling in my foot: early onset gout or pins-and-needles?

It all came to a head shortly before Christmas when a friend of mine was visiting and let me use his laptop. As Jim became absorbed in a DVD, I began to look up online my growing list of symptoms (the list got progressively larger as I realized just how many symptoms of fatal illnesses I'd had all along, but had never noticed). At one point, Jim asked what I was doing.

"Nothing," I replied casually, before adding: "This rash on my arm -- would you say it's red and blotchy or just red? It's not blotchy is it? Do you think this looks like herpes simplex 47b?"

As he snatched the laptop away from me, I think I screamed something along the lines of "Give it back! I'm dying, you heartless creep!" but I can't really remember (Alzheimer's? Stroke?). The extent of my obsession became clear to him once he reviewed the sites I'd visited. "You are a hypochondriac!" he yelled. "There is nothing wrong with you. Drink some orange juice and shut up," he implored.

As Jim's words rang in my ears, I began to think that maybe, just maybe, I'd gotten a bit carried away. Everyone always talks about what a marvel the Internet is, information instantaneously any time of the day (blah, blah, blah), but what no one ever seems to mention is this can be a bad thing. And on the Internet, almost all of the medical information is bad -- not bad in terms of accuracy, but it's certainly bad news. In all my searching I never found one site that said "you're probably fine"; rather, it was all death-and-disease, all the time. While a lot of sites warn the reader that they shouldn't use the information as a definitive guide, it's hard not to once you're convinced that your headaches are the result of some sort of inflammation of the brain.

Laugh all you want, but I know I'm not alone in my Internet-induced hypochondria: two friends recently revealed that they'd diagnosed themselves with multiple sclerosis and testicular cancer respectively after searching the web; that they are both women only demonstrates my point further. As for me, I've decided to stop surfing the Net for self-diagnosis: the stress was too much. My muscle spasms have cleared up and I don't seem to be worse for wear.

Indeed, I'm not going near the Internet for a good long while except maybe to do an online self-test for hypochondria -- because I am, to tell you the truth, a bit worried about why I worry so much.

Ceinwen Giles is a Canadian living in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

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