Cyberchondria is a digital age version of hypochondria

Internet, TV can make you a more educated patient

(CNN) -- After traveling seven hours in the Chevy Impala he drives for work, Cliff Roberts wasn't overly concerned when he started feeling as if his legs were asleep -- stinging and vaguely numb.

It's probably because you didn't get out of the car enough, Patti Roberts remembers telling her husband, before the pair went about their day in 2007.

Later that week, with the numbness in Cliff's legs still coming and going, Patti sat down to watch the episode of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" that would eventually help save her husband's life.

With boundless health information available at the click of a TV remote or computer mouse, patients such as Patti and Cliff have come to rely on these media as they would a doctor's visit.

See, the next morning, after the couples' two sons headed off to school, Patti and Cliff thought to take romantic advantage of their empty Tampa, Florida, home. But for the first time in their more than 20 years together, Cliff wasn't able to perform.

Then Patti had a thought. Dr. Mehmet Oz had spoken about symptoms that precede a heart attack on Oprah's show the day before -- one of which was erectile dysfunction because of slowed blood flow.

Cliff was no stranger to indigestion, and the couple had previously disregarded the pressure he felt in his abdomen -- yet another sign that a heart attack could be looming.

"There's a lot of useful information that people get from TV," said Dr. Sharon Horesh Bergquist, assistant professor of medicine at Emory University. "But [TV personalities] can carry so much influence on patients, that sometimes [the patient] ... will ask for tests that they may not necessarily benefit from."

Same goes for the Internet.

The term cyberchondria -- a digital age-play on hypochondria -- has been tossed around since the early-to-mid 2000s, when searching symptoms online became commonplace.

"Dr. Google has certainly sent me his share of referrals," Bergquist jokes. "A lot of my patients do a preliminary search, and get frightened by something they read. They'll go to the doctor for something they wouldn't have initially gone for."

That's what Patti and Cliff worried about as they spoke with the paramedics at their home.

But Cliff agreed to go to the hospital, despite his perfect electrocardiogram and slightly high blood pressure.

"Part of me was thinking I may have overreacted," Patti said.

By 1 p.m. the next day, the emergency room doctor told Cliff he was lucky not to have had a heart attack. His left main coronary artery, often called the widow maker, was 90% blocked.

"People will hear something and it's like, it's meant," Oz told CNN. "It's fate. They were meant to hear it. Of course there were millions of other people who heard it who didn't think anything about it. But [Patti] needed to hear that message. And somehow she hung onto it."

Patients who play an active role in their care, which can include searching symptoms online, have better health outcomes, Bergquist said. However, she said, it's important to remember: The more common the symptom, the more likely it is that a misdiagnosis will occur.

For example, something as broad as a cough could be anything from a benign cold to lung cancer.

Cyberchondria occurs when people jump right to the worst-case scenario.

"Physicians can add the perspective and knowledge of putting symptoms together in terms of a patient's history," she said.

Alternatively, searching rarer symptoms will yield fewer possible diagnoses, she said, adding, "That can sometimes offer more help than a physician can."

Thanks to the Internet, one of Bergquist's patients found that her "brain shock" was a side effect of coming off serotonin to treat anxiety and depression. "I wasn't aware that could be a potential side effect ... and since she's brought it to my attention, I can tell other patients," Bergquist said.

Although Cliff and Patti now readily turn to the Internet and TV, they know it can't replace a relationship with a doctor. But the Web and the doctor can complement each other.

Still, after having three heart stents implanted in 2007, another in 2011 and being healthy on paper, Cliff began feeling some chest discomfort this spring. Patti turned to the Web and found reassurance.

"[Stents are] a scary thing to look up," Patti said. "If I find really bad news, I'll try to find something in the middle that gives you the truth but doesn't freak you out. I was able to pull from it that [the discomfort] is a normal thing that happens after you have one. ... Maybe last time the artery was in a different place."

Sticking to legitimate websites is the safest bet, Bergquist said.

"As a general rule, any website that ends in .gov or .edu is going to offer reliable information," she said, noting a physician plays a vital role in reaching an accurate diagnosis.

But if used correctly, the Internet and TV can make you a more educated and empowered patient -- and maybe even save your life.

 
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