Whatever You Do, Don’t Google Your Symptoms
Let me tell you about my worst-ever day at work. It was a normal day, until it wasn’t, at which point I rushed up to my boss and said: “I’m sorry, but I have to go!” and he let me, no questions asked.
Full disclosure: a few minutes earlier I had gone to the loo and noticed that my testicles had completely changed colour. There was no pain, just a sea of purple and black that had suddenly appeared for no discernible reason. I whipped out my phone and searched the internet for what it meant – assuming, of course, that it meant I was going to die and the world was going to end – and within moments Dr. Google had served up a disastrous diagnosis. One word jumped out at me as though the letters had sprouted legs and started trampolining out of the screen towards my eyes.
a few minutes earlier I had gone to the loo and noticed that my testicles had completely changed colour. There was no pain, just a sea of purple and black that had suddenly appeared for no discernible reason.
It was the only option, it said. Or perhaps it said it was ‘probably’ the only option, or ‘an’ option. It was hard to tell with all those trampolining letters. In any case, I hailed a black cab to the nearest hospital and sat in the back, sweat pouring down my brow, thinking I might have to be castrated.
Psychologists have a word for the mental state I was in that day. It’s called catastrophising, and it’s a common phenomenon in which, in a state of spiralling anxiety, we latch on to a worst case scenario so that we can seek reassurance that it isn’t going to happen. Luckily, in my case, I checked in with an NHS helpline who confirmed I should go to A&E, and once there, was treated by medical professionals whose tests showed there was nothing wrong. Within days, I was back to normal.
These bouts of catastrophising are becoming more common as more of us Google symptoms, becoming ‘cyberchondriacs’ and freaking out when they we the results they throw up. It’s estimated that health anxiety, fuelled by cyberchondria, could be costing the NHS £420 million pounds every year, fuelled in part by the rise in these instant but often unreliable diagnoses.
While there are some websites that carry reliable information such as NHS Inform, there are also plenty that don’t, and when Googling your symptoms, all roads seem to lead to cancer.
These bouts of catastrophising are becoming more common as more of us Google symptoms, becoming ‘cyberchondriacs’ and freaking out when they we the results they throw up.
As an experiment, let’s take a look and see what happens when I Google some everyday issues I’ve experienced lately:
1. “My stomach hurts”
I had a stomach ache a few days ago. It passed eventually, and I put it down to indigestion. But if I’d turned to Google, I might have ended up on a page telling me that it could indicate a perforation, which is a surgical emergency, or another telling me to “Try not to swallow too much air” (?).
2. “My feet ache”
Pretty standard ailment this: I feel it maybe… most times I take the tube. But the internet is telling me that I need a doctor to inject a type of steroid called “corticosteroid” to cure my “Plantar Fasciitis”. This is the first result for this bog-standard search, and it’s written by an intern at a private physiotherapy clinic in Canada who is trying to attract bookings.
3. “I have a headache”
The NHS website is reassuringly high up the search listings for this one, but scrolling further, it isn’t long before I’ve stumbled upon a page emblazoned with the words stroke, infection of the brain, and brain tumour.
4. “My bum hurts”
I was sat on an uncomfortable metal chair the other day. If I’d have consulted Google about my discomfort, the first search result would throw up the possibility that my bum hurting was, indeed, due to cancer.
It’s easy to see why we are tempted to use Google. Men have massive hang-ups about going the GP so the lure of a private way of checking up on our health acts as a temptation.
But why are we so worried? Well, we make up all sorts of excuses. One of the most common is that we’re too busy. This is ridiculous, because nothing should come before our health. Plus, a doctor’s appointment is probably the one thing almost everyone accepts as a legitimate reason not to do something else, and in the rare case that time if time is an unavoidable issue, there are NHS helplines or GP At Hand services that can help you access NHS services remotely.
Perhaps the more important underlying reason is that we’re worried it’ll make us appear weak. But this martyr mentality makes zero sense either because, as the old saying goes, no man is an island. Neglecting your health doesn’t make you strong, it makes you repressed: especially as those closest to you will suffer much more if you aren’t able to deal with a problem properly, early.
One of the consequences of this line of thinking is that men tend to wait until we have lots of symptoms built up in order to justify going for an appointment. This is also a bad approach because sitting on it could be making an original issue worse. One doctor reported the typical case of male patients coming in with a sore shoulder, only to tell them that they also have a problem with their rectum as if it’s an afterthought on the way out. This is a waste of everyone’s time, and totally unnecessary because no doctor is going to be squeamish at the word rectum. It’s literally their job to deal with health problems.
This shame around our bodies, and reticence to admit we have issues with them, is dangerous. Doctors care about your health, and they’re experts on the human body: it’s really not a big deal to them that you have a rectum or a penis or a chest or a back or a foot, and that – like any body part – they can require medical attention. Opening up about your issues will lift a weight of your shoulders, and will invariably be much easier than you expected.
Health anxiety is pretty awful, but it’s also preventable. So to avoid panicking about testicular amputation, leave that Google search bar alone, take a deep breath and start booking in regular check-ups with your GP. Your testicles are going to be just fine.