DR. KESTNER: Internet is minefield for worried minds

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Many of the ideas for column topics originate during my conversations with patients.

Patients in my office represent the entire spectrum of people across this community, so the things they ask about likely reflect interests that appeal to many readers.

That is the case for today’s column.

A patient came to see me about several symptoms including headaches a while back.

Prior to coming to see me, she had been researching her symptoms on the Internet.

By the time she got to my office she had determined that she either had a spine problem, pinched nerve, brain tumor, sinus infection, gallbladder disease or TMJ dysfunction.

She was in such a tizzy from her Internet research that she was literally making herself sick with worry.

She began by looking up “headache” on sites such as WebMD, Mayo Clinic, and similar sites that provide health information.

Those sites can be very helpful, but the large amount of information can be confusing.

To make matters worse, the constant googling had led her to a variety of discussion boards.

These are sites where members can make comments about any topic that they find.

The discussion often goes like this:

Original post: “I have been having headaches that start in the back of my head, but I have been having diarrhea and stomach pain too. I am wondering whether I have digestive problems that cause the headache. Maybe I should take probiotics. Anyone have similar symptoms?”

Responder 1: “My DH (computer discussion shorthand for dear husband) had the same symptoms. He went to several doctors and couldn’t find anything wrong. A year later we learned that he had a benign brain tumor.”

Responder 2: “Oh my, that’s terrible. I am so sorry to hear about your DH. I hope that is not the problem. I had the same symptoms prior to having my gallbladder taken out. I felt better immediately and no more headaches.”

Responder 3: “So the tumor was causing the headaches and the indigestion?”

Responder 1: “No, it was causing the headaches. He had brain surgery and the headaches went away.”

Responder 3: “So he still has unexplained diarrhea and stomach pain?”

Responder 1: “Sometimes. His doctor put him on a medicine that helps a lot. I can’t think of the name of it right now.”

Responder 4: “A few years ago I had TMJ problems that caused headaches, and because I couldn’t chew without pain, I wasn’t chewing my food enough. That caused cramps and diarrhea when I ate certain foods. Do you have jaw pain?”

Original poster: “Yes I sometimes have clicking in my right jaw and pain around my ear.”

Responder 4: “That definitely sounds like TMJ.”

Needless to say, the Internet can take a reader on a pretty wild goose chase.

Although computer searches can be informative, misinformation and confusion can add to worry and delay proper treatment.

This week’s suggestion is to seek professional diagnosis about any symptom that is severe or that you have been wondering about for more than a month.

Not knowing the cause is creating unnecessary stress in your life and getting a definitive diagnosis can alleviate fear and worry.

If you have already seen a doctor without getting resolution, maybe it’s time for a second opinion.

Once you learn the actual cause for a condition, you can make informed decisions about treatment options. Facts often are worry’s worst enemy.

Next week: Tips to help your digestion.

Stay happy and stay healthy.
Read more from:
Health Care, Living Well, Mark Kestner, Voices
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Members Opinions:
January 20, 2012 at 12:02pm
I can see how this sort of online medical information (or in some cases medial misinformation) could be turning into a real obstacle for medical professionals. On one hand, increased access to information for patients can certainly be a good thing in that it gives people a general idea of what their symptoms might mean, and a way to effectively describe what they are going through to their doctors. However, on the other hand, there’s a reason why doctors go to medical school for years, have to be licensed, and are vetted in a wide range of other ways as well. Put simply, we are not all just as knowledgeable or capable as medical professionals just because we can read an article on WebMD or discuss our ailments with individuals who claim to be going through something similar on an online bulletin board. The real problems seems to me to occur when people 1) don’t take an adequate “grain of salt” with medical information they read online and 2) begin to believe not just that they are more knowledgeable than they were before they read up on their ailment, but that they are now as knowledgeable as their doctor is (or even more so!).
January 22, 2012 at 8:33am
I agree with the lack of validity to diagnose an illness based on internet information. I was relieved after my first night sweat that I didn't have a tropical ingested worm/disease or some form of cancer! Only the change of life! Whew!

However, after diagnosis have been given, medical reports written pertaining to a specific illness...I have found the internet medical information regarding specific diagnoses to be very informative. And such information on the internet useful in putting into layman terms what the medical terminology is actually saying.....using the internet to "understand" the medical community/reports...so not all is bad in what is available...some very useful. It's all in how it's applied.
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