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Cyberchondria: A tangled web

It all started last summer. I felt a pressure in my chest, right around where my heart is. At first I dismissed it. After all, I’m a healthy 20-year-old male. Why would I be experiencing heart pain? But as weeks went by the pain in my chest remained, and the more I thought about it, the more noticeable it became. I began to panic.

It seems the first reaction of any male with a pain in his chest is to scream “heart attack.” But I’ve always considered myself a reasonable person. Usually I remain calm under pressure (even if that pressure is literally in my chest). So, like any reasonable person, I clicked over to WebMD for a prognosis.

It was then that my calm demeanor went out the window. According to its diagnosis, I was having a heart attack and should call 911 immediately. Reading this, my heart began to beat faster. The pain in my chest grew, and a lump developed in my throat. My mouth was dry, my brow sweating. Was I really having a heart attack?

I scheduled a doctor’s appointment, and after several tests I anxiously awaited the results in the coldest examination room in the Western Hemisphere.

When my doctor entered with a chart and a clipboard I gripped the butcher paper laid out on the examining table. The moment of truth: My heart was fine, she said. In fact, everything about me was fine. The pressure in my chest was likely caused by anxiety. My doctor said I just needed to take deep breaths.

My paranoia about what might have been ailing me is part of a broader disorder called cyberchondria, meaning the fueling of fears and anxieties about common health symptoms because of Internet research. And who hasn’t had an eye twitch or an oddly placed freckle and resorted to the web for a diagnosis?

Despite the benefits of websites such as WebMD, they also can cause trouble. People with common ailments will become even more worried after doing research. That splitting headache? It’s not because you didn’t have your caffeine fix today — it’s actually because you have a brain tumor.

The Internet has essentially become our go-to guy for every question we could possibly have about the world and ourselves. But that’s where trouble arises. The fact is the steps doctors take to diagnosis someone can’t be replicated by a search engine. And a website has no capability of doing the tests a doctor can perform, such as those on my heart last summer.

Search engines rank things based on relevance and visits. While more people may suffer from anxiety than heart attacks, when you search “chest pain,” heart attack will be one of the first results to come up because it is more widely researched.

Essentially, the research I did to reduce my fears simply scared me more. And perhaps that is where the broader point lies. It seems too often we resort to the loneliness of a computer screen to figure out our lives instead of other human beings. From relationship problems to health conditions, Google can only tell us so much. There is a reason people spend years in school to become doctors: They have a skill that should be used. All it takes to use it is a phone call. We’re a complicated species, and sometimes a computer can’t replicate that.

And like my doctor said, sometimes you just have to breathe.

Justin Snow is a junior history major.  He can be reached at snow@umdbk.com.

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