Looking for Healthcare Answers on the Internet Can Drive You Nuts

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by Ed Tobias |

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I know, I know. I write about health issues on the internet, so I shouldn’t be discouraging people from looking for answers here. But, searching the internet to match symptoms with a diagnosis can be a real anxiety booster.

Emily Sohn makes a solid case for that in a recent article in The Washington Post:

“I might have jaw pain, dizziness or a stomach flu that makes me vomit. Before long, I’m wondering about heart attacks, tumors, even Ebola. 

“Usually, I manage to rationalize away my fears, especially when symptoms go away — until a new problem arises. Then, even when I try not to look, I end up online, searching for signs of my own imminent demise.”

Sound familiar? It’s not so much that writers like me are a problem. Rather, it’s the sites that allow you to enter symptoms and search for a diagnosis. Doing that can make you nuts.

Sohn interviewed clinical psychologist Thomas Fergus, of Baylor University, who says that internet searching isn’t necessarily bad. But, he says, searching online can magnify the pool of potential problems to worry about. If you’re already a person who worries about your health, that’s not a good thing. “What makes it a problem is the frequency, the intensity and the severity,” Fergus says.

Some researchers call this “cyberchondria.” This describes people who may limit their searches to information that confirms their fears while ignoring positive information, even from doctors. In the Post article, Fergus suggests that if someone is still worrying, even after doctors say there’s nothing to worry about, it might be a sign that their anxiety needs extra professional attention.

There’s also another internet-related problem: social media. I’ve written about this before. Here, the problem isn’t selective information — it’s information that’s blatantly incorrect. You can find a bunch of it on Facebook pages and blogs that are related to MS (as well as other diseases, of course). Unsupported, incorrect information is presented as fact and then people, many of whom seem to want to believe the bad information, spread it even further.

So, what can you do? I’d suggest a couple of things. First, look for high-quality sources of information. The National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, the MS Society UK, and the Mayo Clinic are just a few that spring to mind.

MS-specific groups on Facebook are OK if you understand that most posts are personal experiences and they may not apply to your disease. You certainly don’t want another patient trying to diagnose your problem. But some, being helpful, will try.

Finally, take off your “blinders” and be open to information that may not confirm what you may want to believe. Then, turn off your laptop and discuss all of your research with your real doctor.

You’re invited to follow my personal blog at www.themswire.com.


Note: Multiple Sclerosis News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Multiple Sclerosis News Today, or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to multiple sclerosis.


Laura avatar


I agree that safe diagnosis via the internet is not a good thing to do. Seeking a proper diagnosis from your healthcare provider is important. However, I have had MS for 25 years and finally diagnosed in 2017. I would caution people with a chronic illness to listen to their bodies and follow up with their caregivers. MS is sometimes a difficult disease to pin point, but I would suggest phycians listen more to their patients, as we know our bodies better than anyone else.

Ed Tobias avatar

Ed Tobias

Hi Laura,

Thanks for sharing your thoughts. There is a definite communications gap between some doctors and their patients. I wrote a column about this a year ago:


FB avatar


This tendency to self-diagnose seems to be becoming more and more prevalent, and people are drawing their own conclusions without having a medical background, and could possibly be putting themselves at risk by not seeking appropriate medical advice or treatment. The MS forums are littered with people joining in and seeking advice, and then when you read further you find that they haven't yet seen a neurologist, or haven't had any of the requisite diagnostic tests, etc etc etc.

And the problem with "selective information" is rampant. I have noticed that often the "prettiness" and professional look of websites seem to "lure" people into believing that the sites' content is entirely legitimate. This is often the case with the MS diet/lifestyle websites, and if you look a bit deeper the research has generally been cherry-picked and may well be quite ancient. A while back I checked some cited sources on one vegan/vegetarian site which is extremely popular with people (both those with and those without MS) and found that the "numerous sources" which claimed to have shown that consumption of cows milk may be a significant increased risk for getting MS were 25 years, 40 years, and 42 years old at the time the article was posted on line in 2016. That's hardly going to fit in with anyone's definition of current research, but people still take this stuff as gospel because they either (a) don't have the research skills to look further, or (b) just want to believe what's on the sites because it sounds like it makes sense or it fits in with what other people (who are probably equally misinformed) have been telling them.

The internet can be an incredibly valuable source of information for people with a disease such as MS, but extreme caution and a sense of self-preservation is essential It's a jungle out there, and the sad thing is that people are no doubt putting themselves and their health at further risk by believing far too much of what they see on line.

Ed Tobias avatar

Ed Tobias


Very well stated. Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts.



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