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We’ve all done it before. Presented with a new ache, pain or rash, we turn to the internet to find out what’s wrong. Typically, the search results include a myriad of health problems ranging in severity from “it will go away on its own” to “you only have months to live.”
It’s not surprising that these types of searches could make people feel anxious about their health. Now a new body of evidence explains what’s going on.
A systematic review conducted by mental health researchers in Australia looked at the body of evidence on Internet health searches and anxiety.
The authors include 20 studies with more than 7,300 participants in total that explored the relationship between health anxiety and seeking health information online. They found that the internet provides a wealth of health information that can help people to better understand their own health, how to prevent specific diseases and when they need to see a doctor. But their meta-analysis revealed solid evidence that people who are more anxious about their health search the internet about health-related topics more frequently and for greater periods of time.
This anxiety about internet searches and health has become such a problem in the past two decades that psychologists identified a new disorder – cyberchondria, which is the unfounded escalation of concerns about health symptoms based on information from the internet.
The analysis showed that people with health anxiety are especially prone to developing cyberchondria when looking for health information online, leading to more serious health problems related to anxiety. They also found that when people repeatedly conduct online searches looking for reassurance about their health, they are more likely to experience anxiety that leads to cyberchondria.
The review also found that age is an important factor. Older study participants with health anxiety were more likely to develop cyberchondria. The authors explain this could mean that younger people with health anxiety find more reassurance from their searches.
In addition, people with health anxiety are more likely to see a doctor after a health-related internet search.
So, what’s the best action to take the next time you experience a mystery ailment? The Medical Library Association suggests some important factors to think about when searching for medical information online.
- Who is sponsoring the web site you are reading? Government agencies and educational institutions tend to offer sound health information. Professional organizations such as the American Cancer Society also typically provide evidence-based information. Websites that end with “.com” are sponsored by a commercial organization, such as a private hospital or drug company.
- How often is the web site updated? This is key to ensure you are receiving information that is currently relevant.
- Does the web site present facts and not opinions? You should be able to verify health information you find from a primary source such as a medical journal or a link to a qualified professional organization.
- Who is the intended audience? It might be more difficult to decipher health information that is written for medical professionals instead of consumers.
The take-home message: While the internet can provide important and reliable health information, frequent health searches can heighten anxiety levels and even lead to more serious mental health problems. If you need to search for health information online, look for reputable sources that present evidence-based facts.