Francesca mistook a harmless bleeding from a rhagades for a colon tumour. Cristian got convinced that physiological paraesthesia at night (when we sleep poorly and one of our legs or arms falls asleep) was an unequivocal symptom of multiple sclerosis. Andrea risked insomnia because of twitching, nervous and involuntary convulsions people often have when they are in a state of drowsiness, all of a sudden became a secure sign of ALS in an initial phase. All of them needed specialist visits and the support of psychotherapy to overcome panic attacks and convince themselves that they had nothing. And stop monitoring, googling, digging the Web in search of a certain and safe answer to their suffering, increasing thus their load of anxiety.
Technically it is called Cybercondria (a crasis between hypochondria, fear of illness, and cybernetics). It consists in a spasmodic insertion on search engines of pains, illnesses or mere sensations to have an online diagnosis. For the experts this is a real disorder of obsessive-compulsive nature which produces many damages. This is because Google and Co. work according to algorithms which privilege the most popular results. Among the latter, obviously, there are the most serious pathologies: neoplasms, diseases of the central nervous system or vascular diseases. Thus, a common headache becomes brain cancer, pain in the arm becomes the beginning of a heart attack and collation (a muscle spasm many people have due to stress) transform into a prelude to paralysis.
A significant social problem which is spreading rapidly. According to latest data, in US 8 people out of 10 are affected by this disorder, whereas in Italy it affects 32.4% of the population (CENSIS 2012). A slap in the face of the doctors, the only ones who after years of study and specializations, are able to say if we are sick or not. And who often are not listened to. The consequences are not difficult to imagine. Internet offers plenty of impressive information which is not always in line with latest scientific research. Think of Wikipedia, the multimedia encyclopaedia to which everyone can contribute, but which should not be taken as a trustworthy source capable of replacing the opinion of an expert. Then there are the portals in which you can simply introduce the symptom to have a response on the possible pathology. Sites to avoid like the plague. If we type in “blood from gums”, for instance, we get a wide range of results, from common gingivitis to liver cirrhosis and leukemia. An anxious person will ignore the less severe diseases and will focus on the others, trying to learn more about it through further research. The consequence is that they begin to experience psychosomatic disorders, that is, non-existent symptoms they get convinced of having. And if besides being hypochondriac they happen to be also iatrophobic (afraid of doctors), they will not have the courage to go to the doctor to be reassured about their actual conditions. The risk is to get isolated, have panic attacks and proceed slowly, towards depression.
Another tool to be handled with caution are the forums where doctors offer advice. Keep in mind the following phrase: “Tips” should not be confounded with “diagnosis”. The doctors who are consulted keep repeating it themselves to the users: “Medicine is not a science which can be practiced from a distance’. However, not many people seem to listen to this warning. Requests for clarifications are constant, despite their invitations to carry out specific examinations. Some people make a shopping list of their illnesses, often putting together various symptoms, not necessarily connected to the same disease. In the end, the expert gets tired and stops responding or bursts out and invites the virtual patient to visit a psychiatrist.
On sites which are far from being always trustworthy, online discussions and social networks, Cybercondria spreads as a virtual cancer. It takes effort to quit, have the courage to talk to their loved ones or with a doctor in the flesh. And trust what (s)he says, even if the explanation does not dissipate completely our doubts, otherwise we will get scared. Keep in mind that the disease (if it exists and whatever it is) wins more easily if we deprive our mind of the tools it needs to combat them.