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Are You A Cyberchondriac? Bergen Doc Explains New Anxiety Epidemic

Holy Name Medical Center Internist Clenton Coleman.
Holy Name Medical Center Internist Clenton Coleman. Photo Credit: Contributed

TEANECK, N.J. — Holy Name Medical Center Internist Clenton Coleman says he is seeing an uptick in patients coming in with health-focused anxieties fueled by internet searches.

Most of these patients are seeking reassurance from a doctor so that they can move on with their lives, the physician said.

And most of the time, they leave with a less severe and differential diagnosis from a doctor, rather than a self-diagnosis with help from the internet.

But every so often, Coleman sees patients who are convinced that they are suffering from a severe condition that they've been obsessing over for hours, after researching it thoroughly online.

Coleman says those are the patients suffering from the new, health-focused anxiety epidemic, c yberchondria : the escalation of concerns about common symptoms based on search results and literature online.

"Cyberchondriacs are focused on the diagnosis, regardless of speaking to a doctor who can interpret symptoms, perform an examination, get their medical history and come up with a differential diagnosis," Coleman told Daily Voice.

"It's not normal behavior — it's an anxiety."

CYBERCHONDRIA VS. HYPOCHONDRIA

Just because you search online doesn't mean you're a cyberchondriac, or a hypochondriac, Coleman explained. The two, however, often go hand-in-hand.

Hypochondria is a health-focused anxiety, while cyberchondria is a health-focused anxiety using the internet, Coleman explained.

The challenge for Coleman and many other health care professionals is distinguishing between normal anxieties and compulsive gathering of online information.

"Now that the information is out there, you see more patients who have self-diagnosed," Coleman said.

"The treatment for cyberchondria is more of a cognitive behavioral treatment, as opposed to reassuring a patient worried from illness, and then they move on."

Less than 5 percent of patients are cyberchondriacs, who spend three to four hours a day looking up their symptoms online, according to Coleman.

"Many patients are also triggered by someone close to them getting sick, and then they think they have the symptoms," Coleman said. "Then, they search online and that perpetuates itself.

THE INTERNET'S ALGORITHM

An important factor to consider when researching symptoms is that the internet does not spit out arbitrary information.

"When most, normal people search for information, they search for worst-case scenario and the results are based on popularity," Coleman said. "If you have a headache, most people are not going to search for headache and migraine. Most people search for headache and brain tumor."

Coleman stressed the importance of seeing a medical professional, who can perform a medical examination, gather family/medical history and come up with a differential diagnosis.

"Doctors encourage patients to seek medical attention instead of relying on the internet for diagnosis," he said.

"If they do use the internet, it's important to use credible sources."

Coleman urges patients to utilize disease-specific organizations and associations instead of relying on anecdotal information, which is  not necessarily scientific.

"You want patients to be informed," he said, "and you want them to have accurate information."

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