Don’t Succumb to Cyberchondria. Be Wary of Internet Self-Diagnosis


Dr. Arnold


Roy M. Arnold MD

Is that headache a brain tumor? Are those muscle twitches Lou Gehrig’s disease? Is your thinning hair due to an over-active gland? Ask Dr. Google!  

Don’t get me wrong, I believe the internet is a marvelous thing. I use it daily to aid in my practice. Many persons who are experiencing unusual symptoms or feelings may use the internet to aid in self-diagnosis. Bear in mind that an internet search often may bring up the worst case scenario first. Take for example brain tumors. These are rare, occurring in about 1 out of 50,000 people. Yet research has shown that an internet search for “headache” brings up brain tumor 25% of the time. Motor Neuron Disease like Lou Gehrig’s disease occurs in 1 out of 14,000 people but a search for muscle twitching brings up numerous websites that list it as a major cause of twitching. Part of the problem is author bias. No one wants to write about caffeine withdrawal as a cause of headaches. Another part of the problem is the willingness of internet users to equate search rankings with likelihood.

An article published in 2008 by Eric Horvitz and Ryen White was the first systematic review of information about illnesses obtained from the internet. Subsequently the same authors have published 2 additional articles confirming that individuals who search the internet for medical information often don’t understand probability and the biases inherent in reporting on symptoms and construction of medical information.

Even more frustrating are those individuals who place greater weight on information obtained from a website than they do on advice from a health care professional. After all, “They can’t put anything on the internet if it isn’t true. Right?”

Most medical practitioners are open to discussing a patient’s research from reliable websites. This often leads to meaningful communication between patients and their practitioners. The information gathered from the internet can be discussed openly and be tempered by the practitioner’s knowledge and experience. It is vitally important that patients understand the two-way communication that must take place.

So if you are using the internet to research your medical condition, here are a few important tips:

  1. Search engine ranking has nothing to do with likelihood of you having a certain disease.
  2. Websites sponsored by well-known Centers of Excellence like the Mayo Clinic, Cleveland Clinic or M.D. Anderson Cancer center are usually very reliable.
  3. Internet sites affiliated with Medical specialty societies like the American College of Cardiology, the American Academy of Neurology or the American College of Ob-Gyn are usually very reliable.
  4. Websites affiliated with national advocacy groups like the American Cancer Society, The American Heart Association or the Alzheimer’s Association are likely to contain more accurate information than those associated with less well known advocacy groups or with personal blogs.
  5. Websites associated with medical practitioners who also have their own television shows are often much less reliable.
  6. Websites sponsored by pharmaceutical manufacturers or other manufacturers of medical products are often biased in favor of that company’s products or the diseases their products treat.
  7. Individual blogs about certain conditions are often heavily biased and often filled with misinformation.
  8. News outlets such as newspapers, television or news compilation sites tend to sensationalize research results at the expense of providing meaningful information. Just how many things do brown vinegar or acai berries cure anyway?

Finally, maintain a healthy level of skepticism for anything portrayed as a “breakthrough,” “miracle cure,” or “weird trick.” They are invariably trying to sell you something.

If you are experiencing worrisome symptoms, by all means discuss them with your personal health provider and don’t hesitate to ask for a second opinion if you have doubts.