For the past week or so, I’ve had a minor sore throat—nothing keeping me up at night, just a slight twinge of pain, mostly in the morning when I swallow down that first glass of water. Although I haven’t rushed out to a doctor or walk-in clinic yet, I have been spending my free time pondering the possibilities of whether it’s allergies, stress, a postnasal drip, or perhaps the first symptoms of throat cancer.
While my sense of logic tells me that it’s much more likely to be one of the former options, I can’t quite dismiss that last alternative from my mind due to the same medical condition I suffer when attempting to differentiate between gas pains and a heart attack or a pulled muscle and a blood clot. I’m a cyberchondriac.
“Cyberchondria” is defined by Microsoft Research as “the unfounded escalation of concerns about common symptomatology, based on the review of search results and literature on the Web.” In other words, I convince myself that I am currently suffering from some rare and exotic disease based on Googling a fairly general symptom I may be experiencing. Typically, the more general or vague the symptom, the longer the list of possible fatal illnesses I feel the need to research and the greater the number of disease-specific message boards I find myself scrolling through. I cannot tell you how many times I have found my way to a leprosy chat room.
Like many minor mental illnesses that seem to have sprouted up throughout my family tree, I’m convinced this one is genetic. As a small child, I watched my mother thumb through a turn-of-the-century medical encyclopedia ominously titled Diseases of Women as she looked to identify her most recent assemblage of medical indications.
“Have you ever heard of idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura?” she would inquire conversationally while sitting cross-legged on the floor, scrolling through the yellowing and mildewed leaves of the book on her lap. “Because I think I have it.”
Whether or not I worried that whatever horrifying self-diagnosis my mother came up with would no doubt be genetically passed along to me is something I can’t remember (unless I have amnesia or early-onset Alzheimer’s, which are always remote possibilities). Growing to adulthood just slightly ahead of the World Wide Web meant I didn’t have access to the plethora of online deadly disease resources that one can retrieve today with a few clicks. Instead, I improvised by comparing the symptoms of friends and family with my own.
“My arm hurts. Aunt Edna’s arm hurt right before she had a stroke.”
“Yes, but she was 89 and bedridden, and you are 15 and about to go roller-skating.”
My meticulous medical research methods have expanded in a corresponding manner to the growth of accessible information on the Internet. WebMD, with whom I have an almost intimate relationship, recently informed me that the hipster way of labeling myself is with “somatic symptom disorder,” which translates to body symptom disorder, or literally, a disorder of symptoms. And, for each of my symptoms, there is a myriad of maladies out there to be explored.
Suppose I have a headache, which is likely. There are more than 65 possible illnesses associated with a “sudden onset dull headache,” according to the WebMD Symptom Tracker. Yes, tension headache might be the most likely, but how can I completely rule out a migraine, or meningitis, or even Cryptococcus, which is a fungus found in bird droppings? I live near birds, don’t I?
I have pondered why I am not content to apply common sense and practicality to my self-diagnoses (my toe hurts because I stubbed it recently and not because of some kind of peripheral neuropathy) and instead insist on considering the most severe and remote options. Possibly, I feel the need to contemplate the worst-case scenario in order to ensure reality does not come close. Maybe the idea of assuming does not sit well with me, because you certainly never know. Perhaps, I just feel I am too special for the common cold.
One might assume that I spend a debilitating amount of time lounging around the emergency room, chatting up nurses and doctors on coffee breaks, but in fact, my mania rarely takes me out of the house. By the time I have exhausted the list of potential disorders, viruses or afflictions, chasing each one down through an electronic maze of links, articles and message boards, my symptoms have usually disappeared, and I’m forced to admit (sheepishly) that perhaps it was just allergies to someone like my husband, who stands in front of me and nods in an annoyingly smug manner.