I sometimes think that Dr Google must be the world's most popular physician! Legions of us turn to him at times of anxiety, when we need reassurance, or at 3am when there is no one else to ask. As I've said many times, this in itself is not a bad thing. Learning more about the human body and gaining a greater understanding of our health can only be a good thing.
Unfortunately, browsing symptoms usually seems to lead us to fear the worst, or certainly send us down one particular train of thought. In addition, our own personal experiences skew our perception of risk of developing certain diseases. For example, if your neighbour has recently been diagnosed with a serious illness, there is a reasonable chance you'll start to worry about developing the same symptoms. Nowadays people are so much more clued up about their health than previously and are more proactive about seeking advice. Seeing your doctor if you are worried is always advisable. However be aware that your diagnosis may be entirely different to the one Dr Google suggested. Here are a few examples to illustrate the point:
1. You are worried you are having a heart attack…but you may be having panic attacks
Chest pain is something doctors take very seriously. All chest pain, however fleeting or vague will usually trigger in-depth questioning by a clinician about all manner or things, ranging from a precise description of the pain, to your family history and social habits. However, many conditions which are not life-threatening can also cause chest pain such as acid reflux or anxiety. Panic attacks can typically cause symptoms of shortness of breath, chest tightness and nausea; all of which will lead Dr Google to diagnose an acute heart attack.
2. You are worried you have bowel cancer...but you may have piles
Unless you are a surgeon or a butcher, chances are the sight of blood causes an element of panic. Blood coming away from the bottom end is an extremely common complaint and can signify something serious such as bowel cancer. Inflammation in the bowel such as Crohn's disease can mimic symptoms of bowel cancer, as they both can present with blood, loose stools and weight loss. More innocent conditions such as piles (or haemorrhoids) also cause bleeding from the back passage. Careful assessment by your doctor should be carried out to differentiate between all these conditions.
3. You are worried you have breast cancer…but you may have a fibroadenoma
Discovering you have a lump in your breast is undoubtedly worrying and should precipitate a prompt appointment with your doctor. However breast lumps in pre-menopausal women are fairly common and can occur for a variety of reasons. Many women experience lumpiness before a period, which settles a week or so later. Fibroadenomas are also a common cause of innocent breast lumps. They feel like a rubber ball and will move around the breast if you give them a poke, giving rise to their other name - 'breast mice'. They don't tend to cause any pain and will often disappear on their own accord. If not, a specialist can remove them.
4. You are worried you have multiple sclerosis (MS)... but you may have an inner ear problem
The early stages of the neurological condition multiple sclerosis (MS) can cause a wide range of symptoms. Each person affected will experience the disease differently, which can make initial diagnosis difficult and lead to considerable anxiety. Since the symptoms can be variable and wide-ranging, they can be similar to many other conditions. MS can cause visual problems, numbness and tingling, bowel and bladder problems, memory difficulties and dizziness to name a few. Often patients who have recently had contact with someone with MS will worry that their symptoms may also be due to the disease. However, there may be a simple alternative diagnosis. In the case of dizziness this may be due to benign inner ear condition called benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV), which causes common characteristics of vertigo and dizziness when someone moves their head.
5. You are worried you have testicular cancer…but you may have an epidiymal cyst
Men under the age of 50 are notoriously reluctant to attend the GP, so the mere fact a 35- year-old has pitched up at morning surgery is usually a reason to listen up and pay extra attention. Chaps between the ages of 15 and 50 are encouraged to check their testicles once a month, and, if you do find a lump, it doesn't always mean you have cancer. The commonest testicular swellings are caused by fluid around the testicle (hydrocele), or a cyst in the tube lying behind the testicle (epididymis) or varicose veins above the testicle. All three conditions are benign and rarely require any treatment.
6. You are worried you have throat cancer…but you may have acid reflux
Almost half of us will, at some stage, have had a sensation of a lump or something being stuck in our throats. This phenomenon is known as globus and is often due to a benign cause. Many people worry that a cancer may be causing the sensation, but often that is not the case. Many more innocent symptoms such as acid reflux can cause globus. In the case of reflux, acid regurgitates up the gullet causing irritation and inflammation of the throat, giving rise to the feeling of a lump. When treated with medication the acid will abate and the symptoms of globus settle.
7. You are worried you have cancer…but there may be another alternative answer
Fatigue (tiredness) , a lack of energy and weight loss are all symptoms that can be suggestive of cancer. However, lots of other conditions also cause such symptoms and it would be almost impossible for an internet search engine to discriminate between them.
Doctors are trained to ask the right questions, examine patients and pick up on a multitude of tiny clues that Dr Google would be oblivious to. Common and vague symptoms, such as the ones listed above, would probably tick the box for a profusion of conditions - ranging from the innocent to the life-threatening.
Human nature dictates that when faced with a list of potential outcomes we home in on and focus on the scary ones, even if the odds are much more in favour of innocent causes. Feel free to use the internet, but don't let it replace a real-life doctor.
Dr Jessica Garner is a GP and health blogger. Visit her blog here.