Saturday, April 12, 2008

Help for Hypochondriacs!

A friend found a handy tool for us hypochondriacs on the "Real Simple" website. It's called the:

Hypochondriac's Handbook.

The "handbook," which is a 12-page web article, deals with such diverse subjects as chronic thirst (not necessarily diabetes), breast pain (not necessarily cancer) chronic headaches (not necessarily a brain tumor), and so on.

Time Magazine has also recently published articles about hypochndriacs. How to Heal a Hypochondriac talks about the tendency of medical students to become raging hypochondriacs as they gain more and more medical knowledge, truly illustrating Alexander Pope's contention that "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing."

The article goes on to talk about hypochondriacs in general:

"For doctors in training, nurses and medical journalists, hypochondria is an occupational hazard. The feeling usually passes after a while, leaving only a funny story to tell at a dinner party. But for the tens of thousands who suffer from true hypochondria, it's no joke. Hypochondriacs live in constant terror that they are dying of some awful disease, or even several awful diseases at once. Doctors can assure them that there's nothing wrong, but since the cough or the pain is real, the assurances fall on deaf ears. And because no physician or test can offer a 100% guarantee that one doesn't have cancer or multiple sclerosis or an ulcer, a hypochondriac always has fuel to feed his or her worst fears."

Sound like you? I know it sounds like me. Apparently we hypochondriacs are becoming a big wasteful clog in the medical system's pipes. And if you found this site by searching the Internet, you, like me, are part of the problem, and there is even a name for us - cyberchondriacs!

"According to one estimate, hypochondria racks up some $20 billion in wasted medical resources in the U.S. alone. And the problem may be getting worse, thanks to the proliferation of medical information on the Internet. 'They go on the Web,' says Dr. Arthur Barsky, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, 'and learn about new diseases and new presentations of old diseases that they never even knew about before.' Doctors have taken to calling this phenomenon cyberchondria.'"

Luckily for us, there are those who are taking our situation seriously.

"...a few clinicians, like Barsky and Columbia University neuropsychiatrist Dr. Brian Fallon, have begun to take the condition more seriously. 'It's not correct to say there's nothing wrong with a hypochondriac," Fallon asserts. "There is something wrong, but it's a disorder of thought, not of the body.' And, as he points out, disorders of thought are neither imaginary nor untreatable."

Dr. Fallon realized that hypochondriacs had a lot in common with those who suffer from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, or OCD.

"'Both disorders,' he says, 'involve intrusive, worrisome thoughts, the need for reassurance and a low tolerance for uncertainty.' Psychiatrists had lately come to think that OCD could be treated with Prozac and similar drugs, and Fallon decided the medications might work for hypochondria as well. With only 57 subjects, the study was too small to be definitive, but it was certainly promising: about 75% of those who got the drug showed significant improvement."

I can vouch for the fact that since I've been on a low dose of Prozac for the past several years, I am much less apt to go into panic mode and have an anxiety attack when I notice a new symptom, nor am I as apt to immediately assume I have some new disease the second I hear about it (it usually takes at least a few days now!).

Because some of the patients who responded were actually being given placebos, Dr. Fallon concluded there may be other causes of hypochondria, such as depression (stemming from guilt or loss) or a tendency to overanalyze and overreact to every bodily sensation, which is called "somatization."

Whatever the cause, hypochondria becomes a vicious cycle, and it is hard to break. To deal with this, Barsky recommends cognitive behavior therapy.

"'Just as focusing on a pain makes it seem more significant, ignoring it can make it seem much less,' says Barsky. Patients are also instructed to counter panicky thoughts with self-reassurance, reminding themselves, for example, that stomach pain almost never means stomach cancer. Both cognitive therapy and medication seem to work, and at this point it's hard to say whether one is better than the other."

Let's hope both doctors and patients become more aware of hypochondria and try to treat it. This way it will be a win-win for both!