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Are you a 'cyberchondriac'?

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  • When researching a condition online, remember, you're getting just basic info
  • Have a specific question in mind and give yourself a time limit
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By Elizabeth Cohen
CNN
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Empowered Patient, a regular feature from CNN Medical News correspondent Elizabeth Cohen, helps put you in the driver's seat when it comes to health care.

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When you've got so much information at your fingertips, it's easy to fall into an online wild goose chase.

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- First-year medical students are some of the biggest hypochondriacs around. Bombarded with information about every disease under the sun, they start to imagine they have them all. In their minds, every mole is skin cancer. A nosebleed is surely a sign of a tumor. Headache? Must be skyrocketing blood pressure.

"People get terribly anxious," says Dr. Arthur Barsky, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. "One woman who came to see me was convinced she had melanoma. She brought in 20 pages of color photos of various skin lesions, trying to figure out which one looked most like hers."

And now, because of the Internet, we can all be first-year medical students. We can all develop what's called "medical student syndrome." We get basic information, and not necessarily a lot of context, and we're off and running toward a conclusion that may be completely wrong.

Of course, health information on the Internet can be truly useful. But how do you know when you're using it constructively, and when you've gone off on a medical wild goose chase? "I think it's fairly easy to cross that line," says Robin DiMatteo, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside.

So how do you know when you've become a "cyberchondriac"?

You may be a cyberchondriac if ...

... you feel worse after Web surfing instead of better

"If research on the Internet helps to make you feel empowered, and engaged in a dialogue with your doctor, it's helpful," DiMatteo says. "But if it makes your heart rate go up, that's potentially problematic."

Or to put it another way: "If you feel more scared and confused after being on the computer for half an hour, that's not good," says Dr. Vicki Rackner, a surgeon and patient advocate.

... your doctor's reassurances don't help

"I don't have a problem with people fishing around on the Internet to see what diseases they might have," Barsky says. "For most people, a doctor's reassurances that they're fine is adequate. I worry about the people for whom that isn't enough, and whose concerns persist and go right back on the Internet."

... you move quickly from suspicion to conviction

If you quickly become convinced your shaking hands are Parkinson's disease, or your sore throat is an immune deficiency, you need to back away, our panel of experts says. Investigate your symptoms if you like, but leave the diagnosing to the doctors.

How to avoid becoming a cyberchondriac

Barsky suggests putting limits on your surfing right from the start.

"Plan in advance what you want to find out, what the question is you're trying to answer, and how much time you're willing to spend on it," he says. "If you find yourself exceeding those limits, you should ratchet it down."

Rackner has advice based on her own experience as a medical student.

"I was studying for an exam on the pancreas, and I became convinced I had a rare type of pancreatic tumor. I thought, 'I don't need to study because I'm going to die,' " Rackner remembers.

What snapped her out of it? A good night's sleep and an honest discussion with herself.

"When you're off on a medical wild goose chase, you disconnect yourself from your intuition. Ask yourself, do you really have this disease? The answer will almost always be 'no.' " E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

Elizabeth Cohen is a correspondent with CNN Medical News. Senior producer Jennifer Pifer and associate producer Sabriya Rice contributed to this report.

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