Health sites will be death of you

May 19, 2008|By KEVIN COWHERD

Here's a little advice from someone who's been there: If you're ever having a health problem, don't research it on the Internet. It'll just scare the hell out of you.

Let's say you've had, oh, indigestion for a few days.

Type that into a search engine and see what happens.

Here's what you'll discover from all the various medical Web sites: It could be heartburn.

It could be acid reflux.

It could be gallstones.

Or it could be stomach cancer.

Does that help?

Does that put your mind at ease?

No, I didn't think so.

And if you're a raging hypochondriac, which of those four possibilities will you probably focus on?

Right. Two minutes earlier, you were rolling along, singing a song, mildly curious as to why you've had an upset stomach recently.

Now you're convinced you have stomach cancer.

Thank you, webmd.com, emedicinehealth.com and medicinenet.com.

To me, trying to diagnose medical symptoms on the Internet is like walking into a crowded bar and announcing: "I'm having pain in this shoulder. What do you think it is?"

The guy swilling Heinekens says: "Bursitis. Definitely bursitis."

The guy sipping Stoli on the rocks says: "Are you kidding? You need rotator-cuff surgery, my friend."

The woman shooting pool lifts her head and says: "It sounds like a tumor to me. Let me take this shot, then show me exactly where it hurts."

Whatever you do on the Internet, don't visit those health forums where people post the symptoms of their various ailments and others comment on them.

Because these forums are the home office for worst-case scenarios and the blabberings of every cyberchondriac -- that's the new term -- in the universe.

Say you post something about having shortness of breath.

Soon you'll get responses like this:

"My brother had shortness of breath, and he wouldn't go to the doctor. I kept telling him: `Ralph, something's wrong. Go see Doc Clauson.' But he wouldn't listen, and last Thursday he dropped dead of a heart attack."

"Regarding your shortness of breath, are your feet and ankles swollen? If so, you're looking at congestive heart failure. I should know: I've had it for 27 years. There is no hope."

"Two words: pulmonary embolism. Get to an emergency room now! I had shortness of breath and then a blood clot traveled up my leg to my lung, and it burst, and I have never been the same. My life is over."

Great.

Just what you need to hear.

All you did was mention one symptom, which you've had for a grand total of three days, and otherwise you're feeling fine.

But because of the gloom and doom of the responses, you now want to blow your brains out.

On the other hand, some people actually embrace the gloom and doom of these medical sites and use it as a research tool.

Case in point: Ed, a friend of mine, recently had the sensation of something moving across his eye, almost like a shadow.

Right away, he Googled "detached retina."

"Why not go for the worst-case scenario?" he reasoned.

Well, OK.

Except poking around these sites, he learned what he probably saw were "floaters," tiny clumps of gel that sometimes emerge after cataract surgery, which he'd had six months earlier.

And floaters could be caused by a torn retina.

Which could lead to a detached retina.

Which could, um, leave you blind in a matter of days.

Wonderful. So much for reassurance.

Anyway, this shook Ed so much that he made an emergency appointment with his ophthalmologist.

After a thorough exam, his eye turned out to be fine.

The doctor even saw the "floaters," but there was no damage to the retina. Ed wasn't going to be squatting on the sidewalk holding a tin cup full of pencils anytime soon.

"Go home and don't worry about it," the doctor said.

I'm surprised he didn't add: "Don't go on the Internet again, or I'll poke your eyes out myself."

That's about the best advice a doctor could give.

kevin.cowherd@baltsun.com

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