Aches and Pains and Twitches, Oh My!

How the Internet and TV can contribute to health anxiety

(RxWiki News) Hypothetically let’s say you settle down after a long day to finish a book you’ve been reading, and suddenly you feel an odd sensation in your forearm.

You look and see the muscle fibers in your arm visibly twitch, but the twitching soon subsides. The sensation isn’t painful, just odd, so you continue reading. But a few pages later, there it is again. A quick Google search should clear up the cause of this curious sensation, and you can get back to a restful night of reading, right?


That quick, reassuring Google search may turn into your worst nightmare as three terrifying words appear repeatedly on your computer screen: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a fatal disease of the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord that control voluntary muscle movement. Muscle twitches are sometimes an initial symptom of the disease, often referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease. 

People tend to look at the first couple of results of a Google search, said Eric Horvitz, an artificial intelligence researcher at Microsoft Research, which launched the first study of its kind that took a systematic look at the anxieties of people doing searches related to health care on the Web.

“If they find ‘brain tumor’ or ‘ALS,’ that’s their launching point,” Horvitz said. 

Sometimes muscles spontaneously, involuntarily contract, resulting in various bodily twitches, and doctors aren’t sure why. The medical name for this collection of symptoms is benign fasciculation syndrome (BFS), and, as the name suggests, it’s nothing to worry about.

But for the “worried well” – as well as the flat-out panic-stricken “cyberchondriacs” – there’s a Web forum devoted to BFS at The site's message boards are filled with claims such as: “I am PETRIFIED. I am a grown man and find myself crying with fear a lot”; and “Please Help! So afraid.”

"Nothing has changed clinical practice more fundamentally than … the Internet," writes Pamela Hartzband, MD, and Jerome Groopman, MD, of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in the New England Journal of Medicine. “Material is perceived as factual merely because it is on a computer screen.”

Such reliance can be reassuring or damning, depending on which symptoms are investigated via the Internet. A minor tingling sensation could indicate multiple sclerosis; a backache might suggest a possible abdominal aortic aneurysm; a headache could be a brain tumor symptom, according to information hastily culled from the Web.

According to the Microsoft study, there are just as many Internet search results that link headaches to brain tumors as to caffeine withdrawl, even though the chances of developing a brain tumor are infinitesimally small.    

But the Internet isn’t the only media to blame in increasing trends toward health anxiety and bodily awareness. A new study from the University of Rhode Island suggests that watching television and its many medical series – including reality fare such as Mystery Diagnosis, and fictional series like House and Gray’s Anatomy – can lead to increased concern about personal health and even reduce a person's satisfaction with life. The research was published in the September issue of the journal Mass Communication and Society.

Shawn Toohey, MD, said he has had many patients come through his Auckland surgery showing signs of media-induced health anxiety.

"I like the fact that patients are well-informed,” Toohey said, but added, "The biggest danger with the Internet … is people might not see the need to consult a doctor at all.”

So the next time you have a backache or muscle twitch, resist the urge to diagnose yourself with a fatal disease, and visit your doctor.

Then you might be able to finish that book -- with more peace of mind. 

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Review Date: 
October 4, 2010