People concerned about developing serious medical conditions may stir needless anxiety and confusion by running observed symptoms through internet search engines and online self-diagnostics. A recent study suggests that the rise of internet symptom checkers has brought with it a new brand of hypochondria – cyberchondria. Psychologists now warn that the condition not only triggers unnecessary stress, but also stands to exacerbate existing symptoms by delaying proper care.  

Published in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, the new study describes cyberchondria as a vicious circle that often serves to perpetuate anxiety as well as ailments. For some, the fear of developing a serious illness gives rise to an unbearable uncertainty that feeds on continuous online- or self-diagnosis. According to lead author Thomas Fergus of Baylor University, this fear-based uncertainty subsequently grows worse as people discover new conditions associated with their perceived symptoms.

"If I'm someone who doesn't like uncertainty, I may become more anxious, search further, monitor my body more, go to the doctor more frequently -- and the more you search, the more you consider the possibilities," he said in a press release. "If I see a site about traumatic brain injuries and have difficulties tolerating uncertainty, I might be more likely to worry that's the cause of the bump on my head."

To investigate the prevalence of cyberchondria, the researchers conducted interviews with 512 healthy adults. The participants were asked whether sentiments like “I always want to know what the future has in store for me” and "I spend most of my time worrying about my health” aligned with their personal attitudes. Aside from health anxiety and online searches, the study also evaluated a participant’s intolerance of uncertainty (IU).

“The relationship between the frequency of Internet searches for medical information and health anxiety grew increasingly stronger as IU increased,” the researchers concluded. “These results suggest that IU is important for better understanding the exacerbation of health anxiety in response to Internet searches for medical information.”

One reason behind the rise of cyberchondria is the widespread misconception that online symptom checkers equip users with the proper tools of medical diagnosis. Some believe that search engines and medical doctors are essentially the same, as they both yield diagnoses based on reported symptoms. However, whereas a computer simply checks input information against a database, a physician uses her six to 11 years of intense studies to establish a comprehensive, diachronic profile of the patient’s condition. What’s more, a doctor can also determine whether the symptoms are interconnected, independent, or indicative of simultaneous conditions.

Source: Thomas A. Fergus. Cyberchondria and Intolerance of Uncertainty: Examining When Individuals Experience Health Anxiety in Response to Internet Searches for Medical InformationCyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 2013