Spine & Sport: Beware the dangers of ‘Dr. Google’

Vernon physiotherapist Cheryl Witter said the Internet is a useful tool, but nothing beats the hands-on diagnosis of a professional

There is a new syndrome. Cyberchondria. You probably have it if you rely on “Googling” your aches and pains constantly, instead of seeking a trusted and trained human being.

First coined in the 1990s, cyberchondria results from otherwise rationale Internet users who present their symptoms to “Dr. Google.” They then latch onto the worst (and usually) wrong diagnosis. This is a web-related, Internet -induced hypochondria. People today think they are one click away from health advice. It’s all too easy to consult Dr. Google when you are sore and sick. But there can be a danger in relying on web surfing your way to health. There is a time. And a place. But self-diagnosis through the Internet can be problematic for a few reasons.

Firstly, you may not be translating your symptoms the same way a professional would. This means you may type in some words and descriptions that may not be accurate wording. You may leave important key words out. Your results will be skewed. Your answers not accurate. If you type in “two swollen, hot, painful knees,”  this may lead you to a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis, gout or something worse. Where in reality, you may have knee bursitis from kneeling all weekend while you tiled your bathroom floor. An educated human would have easily been able to tell you this by one look at your knees and prevent your further loss of time with your second search on rheumatoid arthritis!

Secondly, the information found online may not be credible. It is important to recognize a reputable site. If you must self-diagnose because it is 3 a.m. and you can’t sleep without an answer to settle you, start with “Health on the Net” or HON. HON has set up a code of conduct which requires 6,500 sites that have signed up to it to disperse information responsibly. It also runs “Medhunt,” a search engine that pools results from trusted sites.

Thirdly, too much Internet research can create an emotional roller coaster ride. It has the potential to mislead and confuse people (so the 3 a.m. web search may backfire)! Some people will overreact and worry unnecessarily. Some with a serious condition may under react to the search results and not seek medical help. It is not good to arm yourself with too much. Dr. Google needs to be an educational tool. There needs to be a balance. Self-screen, not self-diagnose. Self-educate, but don’t self treat.

In summary, the relationship between a medical professional should not become obsolete. The Internet should not substitute a trained medical person. It should not replace a face-to-face conversation and examination. Old-fashioned looking, listening and touching cannot become a lost art. The physical exam given by a doctor, nurse, physiotherapist, massage therapist, chiropractor, naturopath cannot waste away to the Internet. It is already challenged in an era of CT, Ultrasound, MRI, and countless lab tests. Nothing should replace the human questions from a medical person as they hunt and delve into your health issue to establish the problem. Nothing should replace the “hands on “exam where one can “feel” where the knee is tender and warm.” See “that it is red and swollen, and discern clues from the look on the patient’s face as the knee joint is bent and twisted around. These are things your laptop cannot do. There is no “app”  for this! No one can deny the intangible effect of a medical professional who expertly and compassionately palpates, observes and listens to the body’s whispers.

Cheryl Witter is a physiotherapist at Spine & Sports Physical Therapy and Massage Therapy in Vernon, B.C.