For Cyberchondriacs, the Internet Is the Enemy

With Internet access at nearly everyone's fingertips, trying to find the cause of a headache or muscle pain can be just a few keystrokes away. According to a Pew Internet study, more than 7 million Americans go online every day to research health or medical information.

But for a group of people dubbed "cyberchondriacs," online is far worse for their health than the ache or pain itself.

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"They're called cyberchondriacs and I would say that's the group of hypochondriacs who have a strong, obsessive compulsive focus to their symptoms," Dr. Brian Fallon of Columbia University said.

Ninety percent of hypochondriacs with Internet access become cyberchondriacs, according to Fallon. He said it's a natural progression.

"Cyberchondria can be a terrible, devastating disease in the sense that the individual focuses on nothing other than checking their symptoms on the Internet and it destroys their lives," he said.

An Obsession With No Bounds

Lee Gardon, 47, is a recovering cyberchondriac. Despite his doctor's repeated insistence that he was in good health, Gardon could not believe it.

"I would acquire certain symptoms, it could be just a simple muscle ache or a joint ache and I would go and look into Web pages," Gardon said.

Gardon said he would surf the Web for up to four hours a day, searching for answers. At times he thought he had symptoms of a heart attack -- or worse.

"I would feel tingling in my feet and fingers and a few months later, I was 100 percent convinced I had MS," Gardon said.

His cyberchondria got so bad, he would obsess in the middle of the night and get out of bed and check more of his symptoms. The man who once had passions for running and wind surfing had transformed into someone who would map out hospital locations and the quickest ways to get there in case of an emergency.

"[It was] very, very painful, because he was unreachable," said Gardon's wife, Laura Reyes. "He was really unreachable."

Then Gardon and Reyes found a research study being conducted at Columbia and Harvard Universities. For the couple, it was help that came just in time.

Gardon now goes to Columbia to discuss his illness with Dr. Kelli Harding, who is available to him 24/7. Through a combination of therapy and medication, she teaches Gardon how to manage his thoughts and his anxiety attacks.

He now limits himself to 20 minutes a day of looking up medical news online. His wife said their relationship is better than ever.

But Harding warns that with the profusion of medical information available on the Internet, Gardon's nightmare could happen to anyone with hypochondriac tendencies.

"I sort of think of the Internet as the cutting edge of hypochondria," Harding said. "It's almost like a horror movie if you have hypochondria on the Internet because you want to look away but you can't, and you just get more and more scared the more you look at it."