December 10, 2008

Hypochondria Lite

Cartoon by Al Bar

Anyone else out there have a slight tendency toward hypochondria?

No, not the sort where your life is one long parade of ominous symptoms, visits to specialists, and appointments for tests, re-tests, and re-re-tests--because maybe the results say you're fine but suppose the lab accidentally mixed up your samples with some healthy person's?

That's the fullblown, clinical kind. I'm talking about the more occasional, amateur type hypochondria. Hypochondria "Lite."

The sort of hypochondria where, just hypothetically, you might find one night you're seeing some sort of weird crescent shaped thing in your eye, and you remember something about the symptoms of detached retinas and the dire importance of seeking immediate medical attention for them. And then you convince yourself that because you are not going to roust your sleeping spouse and go to the emergency room, you will probably wake up the next morning blind in one eye. But then instead you wake up the next morning and you're fine! And so you forget all about it.

That kind of hypochondria.

Here's a quick diagnostic test.

Let's say you notice a reddish pimply-looking bump on your leg. That bump is most probably:

a. A pimple.

b. The beginning stages of a potentially deadly flesh eating bacteria you must have picked up at the gym, since you've never had a pimple on your leg before in your entire life. However, since it's conceivable that it's something less ominous, you might wait a few days before checking with a doctor.

c. Malignant melanoma in the final stages. You make an appointment with your doctor and insist she see you as soon as possible, but you also call your attorney to update your will because you know you are a goner.

If you are an "A" person, congratulations, you are normal! If you are a "C" person, we need to talk--meet me at the bottom of the post.

But what about all of us "B" people, the Amateur Hypochondriacs? (And yes, both examples were me--I did worry I had a detached retina, and feared I'd contracted MRSA from my gym this summer until the pimple went away).

We amateurs are little worry-wartish about our health and occasionally think we're going to die when we're not--but we don't freak out nearly often enough or severely enough that it screws up our lives.

Saving Grace: Being a Lazy Slacker

The only reason I haven't humiliated myself in doctor's offices from coast to coast with my exagerrated health fears is because I hate going to the doctor. So I take a "wait and see" attitude--even if while I'm waiting and seeing I'm also seriously considering the possibility that I'm dying. But year after year, the weird bumps and aches and numb spots etc have never turned out to be anything fatal. So this strategy has been surprisingly effective.

Here's a particularly weird example: I was out running one morning and when I finished my run, I had lost the ability to remember about 75% of my vocabulary.

Not just abstract words like "abstemious" or "profligate." I couldn't think of basic words like "muffin" or "blueberry" or "egg" (it was breakfast time) or "scared" (which I was) or "stroke," which I was pretty sure I was having.

This bout of aphasia lasted maybe half an hour. And then, wham, a headache. I almost never get headaches. But fortunately, my words came back. (I'm kinda attached to them).

But before I sought medical attention... I had a vague recollection that my mother had a similar episode of not being able to remember words, and that it hadn't been a stroke but something far less scary. So I called her up (once I regained my ability to speak). I asked her what the heck she'd been diagnosed with.

Her answer? A migraine.

Did you know that one symptom of a migraine is aphasia? Well, I didn't, but I sure as hell do now. So it was yet another 911 call I was glad I didn't make.

Good Reasons for Being a Bit of a Worry Wart

I think anyone who spends a fair amount of time reading about health on the web is at least at some risk for health-related anxiety. With access to more medical information that we know what to do with, it's easy to start with a weird pain in your jaw and end up with a bad case of cyberchondria.

Part of the problem is that so many awful, fatal diseases start with vague symptoms that everyone gets all the time. And if you read the "warning signs," many articles will tell you to run off and check with your doctor right away.

Say you're experiencing a bit of fatigue, or you have a headache, or you've lost some weight, or you've got swollen lymph glands, or you're feeling a bit bloated or light-headed or your feet are numb or you're nauseated. Could be nothing--or, depending on the symptom, it could be a heart attack or ovarian cancer or multiple sclerosis or all kinds of serious things. How can we not be a little bit paranoid?

And no doubt some of you have paid attention to vague symptoms, got yourself to a doctor, and saved your own life by catching a potential fatal illness in it's early, treatable stages. Do not read this post and stop doing that!

But I just have too many transient symptoms that have never, ever meant anything. If followed all the advice I've read about when to seek medical attention, I'd be at the doctor's office every damn day of my life. My solution: I don't go in, but I keep tabs on the symptom and freak out a bit, especially if it's something new and weird.

It always goes away again. So far, so good--I'm still alive!

Unfortunately though, I know folks who ignored innocuous symptoms and it turned out to be Something Bad. So I really don't know what the answer is. Serious diseases are pretty darn rare. But if lots of Weird Things are going on, and not going away, then go get it checked out. Don't worry if your doctor thinks your a whiny worry-wart. Unless this pattern seems to happen to you a LOT.

What If Worries About Your Health Are Interfering With Your Life?

You can get help! If you are frequently afraid you have a serious illness even when doctors assure you you're perfectly fine--you don't have to suffer with this type of anxiety anymore. It's treatable. Studies are finding cognitive-behavioral therapy helps a lot, and that Paxil can be effective too. (But since all drugs have side effects, I might investigate the CBT first.)

And speaking of side effects, do they even let folks with hypochondria read about the side effects of drugs used to treat it? Seems like a bad idea! My advice: If you struggle with irrational health worries, you may want to just take the drugs they give you and not look too closely at the package insert.

(Although I love to read drug side effect warnings if I'm not taking the drug myself. It's kind of fascinating! Coffee-ground vomit? Or another Paxil warning: Males: In the very unlikely event you have a painful, prolonged erection, stop using this drug and seek immediate medical attention or permanent problems could occur. Yikes!)

Besides me and Bossy, is there anyone else out there who sometimes thinks they have dire medical disorders when in reality, they are really Perfectly Fine? Or is it something you don't worry about?


  1. OMG. I swear reading your description I felt like you were a mind reader! Stop scaring me Crabby!

    My frequently irrational thoughts of dire health despair have fleeted ever since my mother went through menopause. Sounds strange, but she went through this phase where the extreme fluctuation of hormones coursing through her were messing with her mental state in a bad way. She became a TEXT BOOK HYPOCHONDRIAC. For two years! I mean, you mention it, she thought she had it, hernia, throat cancer, breast cancer, lung cancer, gangrene, stroke, heart attack, seizures, get the picture.

    Anyway, she is fine now, all that's good in her triumphed over the evil dry spell of estrogen, but it really taught me the valuable lesson that I just can't obsess over things before they happen, if its meant to be, then i'll get on my horse and fight it to its death...or mine. But I'm going to live life first :)

  2. Haha.

    I have a degree in biology and I worked for two years in the department of Oncology.

    I know WAY too many symptoms of horrible diseases for my own good. Thankfully, I'm still way entrenched in the "B" camp.

  3. In 2002, I made the mistake of actually watching an entire Lifetime made-for-TV movie. It was about a girl who had a tiny bump on her knee but before she knew it she had CANCER IN HER WHOLE BODY and got limbs amputated and met the president and then she died. GAH!

    Fast-forward two weeks: I am spacing out at my desk when I feel a teeny tiny bump under the skin on my elbow.

    Tiny bump? This sounds familiar! Alarm bells start clanging and I book it to the doctor's office. . . . He prods the future gigantic mondo tumor very scientifically and says, "This is fine, nothing to be concerned about." He peers at me kindly. "Have you experienced discomfort or has this changed in size?"

    "Nooooo . . ." I answer reluctantly. By way of explanation for my presence there, I add, "Um, there was this thing. On Lifetime."

    Prescription: Doctor forbade me from ever watching another Lifetime movie. I am not making this up.

  4. I couldn't care less if I grew another head, seriously. As long as my weight's not going up I'm HAPPY.

    Now if my BOYFRIEND suddenly grew an unexplained pimple, I'd parcel him off to the doctors quicker than you can say Melodrama. In fact I recently spent a good few weeks lying awake worrying about his sister's poo problem - I was convinced she had bowel cancer.

    Abandonment issues, much?

    By the way Crabby, I hear worrying can be a contributing factor in migraines.... talk about a vicious cycle, you poor stick!

    TA x

  5. Thankfully I am not a hypochondriac, lite or regular. Very occasionally I get a bit fatalistic and think that one day I'm going to get cancer--because my family history and my odds are pretty good for it--but then sanity returns and I just try to focus on being healthy and making sure everything looks and works the way it should.

  6. I dont.

    at ALL.

    so I married someone who did.

    never a dull moment up in herre.

  7. The assorted forms of aphasia bothered me. I've had occasional bouts of it when words simply would not came out. They've increased lately to once or twice a month. I don't actually think I have anything beyond menopause. I only skimmed over the forms as with each one I read I could say "I've had that!"
    It goes away rapidly.

  8. "cyberchondria" that!

    I suffer from "b" mild case, and then I work myself into my best Ahhnold impersonation and tell my self, "It's naht a toomah!"

  9. I'm definitely in camp B but I am a camp C person if I get either: sharp pain in my left leg (worried about another clot) or a more than average painful cyst in my breast (history of breast cancer in my mother) - either of those things will freak me out enough that I'm convinced I'm going to die and even when it turns out to be nothing, I'm not convinced. I tell myself that my doctor is an idiot. heh.

    Self diagnosis - I'm only slightly loony. I can deal with that.

  10. Oh, this is so true! I knew if I waited long enough, someone would be able to diagnose my problem!

    I have "Hypochondria Lite"!


  11. Just seeing MRSA typed on the screen led to a full examination of all bumps and abnormalities, so I'm thinking hypochondria lite describes me pretty aptly.

  12. Oh I absolutely am a hypochondriac lite! I honestly think the Internet was invented just so I could research my weird symptoms online. Of course that often makes me more hysterical rather than less;)

  13. Wow! This just happened last night. I was fixing dinner and my left arm started to feel warm and tingly. My first thought: stroke. My second thought: I had just been sitting on the couch and resting the computer on my arm. DUH! But seriously, it happens to me ALL the time. I think we might all be semi-crazy : )

  14. Heh...yup! Guilty.
    After taking micro and intro to disease in university I was convinced for a time I had/would have/would soon die from a lot of the things we learned about in class, right after that class.
    On the other hand, growing up with a Mom who was a nurse I am usually practically dying of the plague before I'll end up at the doctor for something...I'm learning that I can't always just "will" myself to get better. After some nasty viral pneumonia in university I now have annoying I recommend listening to the voices sometimes. Now that I'm married I have an external guage of how sick I helps let me know when I'm going all whackadoo over nothing or not doing enough when I am actually sick...

  15. Gee, I wonder where the expression "You'll worry yourself sick" came from? I'm convinced that there is a plan for all of us (haven't you seen the Matrix?)

    We are all going to end up where we'll end up. Some with cancer, others with a stroke or heart attack and a bunch face first in a bowl of oatmeal.

    Self diagnosis just enhances the trip to the end with stress.

  16. Hypchondriac Lite sounds about right...I notice things and I worry, but I rarely go to the doctor. It's just such a hassle to go, so I don't unless it's obvious that something is definitely wrong. Or my husband or my mother tell me to (thank goodness for family).

  17. Oh good, I'm not totally alone on this. And some of you are absolutely hilarious about it. I love the "no more Lifetime movies" prescription!

    And I have lots more examples of my own hypochondria than I could squeeze into one post. This may need to be a multi-part series!

    My sympathies to those of you who have Lite or Regular hypochondriacs in your life. We can be kind of a pain!

  18. I'm an A/B. I also get too lazy to go to the doctor. But I have lots of moles and cancer runs in my family so I do go 1-2 times a year to the dermatologist. I'm always convinced that I've got the beginnings of cancer but according to the doctor I'm perfectly fine and healthy.

    But even though I'm pretty much always convinced I've got the beginning stages of cancer I don't really care enough to get too wound up. Can't really be bothered to get all anxious:)

  19. I was just thinking about this yesterday!

    I swing from blatantly neglectful of my body to full blown hypochondria depending on how bored I am.

    My doctor has gone from chastising me about "not coming in sooner" for some chronic conditions to wondering why the heck I'm calling about a slightly off-color bruise from a needle poke. (I thought it might be an infected blood blister and would eventually turn gangrenous and rot off half my body)

    But if they didn't want me to call all the time, maybe they shouldnt' have chastised me to call when things go wrong!

  20. I would give my (false) front teeth to have the cancer diagnosis and the lymphedema be a figment of my own imagination. I would love to have hypochondria-ed those up!

    I do find myself occasionally futzing about ailments (got a cold this week) but years ago a friend told me to 'play a different tune' when I'd be whining about assorted disasters -- I sort of got the hint. Now I suffer in silence by blogging about ailments. It's cathartic though I find not very many people want to read about cancer and lymphedema.
    Who knew?
    Their loss!

  21. Is there such a thing as an anti-hypochondriac, someone who refuses to believe that anything is wrong unless a bone is poking out of the skin? That would be me.

  22. It's not hypochondria if those nasty diseases really /are/ out to get you!

    I always wanted to have my tombstone carved with the words:
    I TOLD you I was sick!

  23. Actually, never mind physical symptoms - in my final year of qualifying as a Clinical Psychologist - I noticed I had symptoms of every single serious pathology in the book!!!! I spose the advantage is that I at least start off knowing I have as many personality disorders as a porcupine has quills.

  24. I love the internet, but Dr. Google really just progressed my Hyopchondria-Lite

    Currently I may or may not have:
    Ovarian cancer
    Skin cancer
    Some weird disease that causes strange bruise-like feelings on small, dime-size spots on my back (haven't googled that one yet)
    Celiac disease
    Endometriosis (actually, I really have been diagnosed with that)
    Plantar fasciitis

    And probably other things I can't remember right now.

    However, I also get migraines and with them tunnel vision, total blindness & aphasia (and often all that is preceded by smelling either cat urine or sour milk).

  25. Well, yeah!!! In medical school it's almost like s course everyone takes Hypochondria 101 :-)

    Now I just live in denial!

    Story: I was getting my flight physical a few years ago, and got the doctor angry because I refused a test! I told him I didn't want to know, and if it was positive I wouldn't treat it! Since then he has had two heart attacks. I really put my energy into prevention, and hope for the best.

  26. I'm not just raising my hand, but waving it frantically in the air. This morning I found a bug bite on my arm. I'm wondering if it's actually a staph infection. Where I would GET a staph infection, I have no idea. But still.

    (And Tokiangel, I hate to say it, but if you grew a second head, your weight would go up about 8 pounds. I know this 'cause when we were kids my brother would say to me "Do you want to lose 8 pounds of ugly fat? Cut off your head!")

  27. I have to admit I have some hypochondriac tendencies. Not enough to get me to the doctor (since this necessitates taking hours off from work), but enough to notice. So when I first started having anxiety (not being able to breath), I thought I had lung issues, or lung cancer, or asthma, or allergies (and I'd get even more anxious because I didn't know WHAT the hell was wrong with me). Before that, I'd get headaches all the time (I think this was how my anxiety expressed itself before), and it crossed my mind that I might have a brain tumor (though, this leap is more understandable because I actually had a relative who had a brain tumor).

    It doesn't help that I'm reading Cobra Event, a novel about biological warfare, and then riding the subway everyday. No, sirree, got major scenarios rattling around in this brain o' mine...

  28. I must be the anti-hypochonriac because I always wait and wait to go to the doctor, thinking the symptoms will go away on their own. When they don't go away after 3 weeks, then I finally drag myself to MD to get checked out.

    I haven't had a migraine in years, but I [now] clearly remember my first experience with aphasia. It was scary because I didn't know why it was happening. Had someone drive me to the doctor, he did some balance tests (including balancing on one leg, jumping up and down on said leg, etc.) and said to go home and lay down. "Come back if it gets worse," he said. I really related with Gazelle's comment: 'I also get migraines and with them tunnel vision, total blindness & aphasia.'

    At least if I have those symptoms again, I'll know what to do.

  29. I have the opposite problem. I procrastinate and think that "its in my head" or that whatever it is will go away. Denial usually increases if I don’t have health insurance.

    I was never right unfortunately.

  30. I'm totally like that! Thankfully I'm level headed enough to talk myself around but sometimes what pops in my head first for a simple ailment is just ridiculous. I'm continuously (half) convinced I have some form of alzheimers because my memory can be really terrible! My husband often swears to telling me about things that I have absolutely no recollection of! I'm sure he's trying to get me committed or something :)

  31. I know a lot of people who have hypochondria. Given that we hear about all of these different ailments on the television and via internet, I think it's only normal that we begin to worry about our own health.

  32. Hypochondria Lite is soooo me! I got dizzy for a few days and was convinced that I had a brain tumor. It was just allergies.


  33. My hypocondriak story:
    I was at a resturant having diner with my parents. The following conversation insured:

    Me: Can I get you to say something in this ear?
    Mum: "...."
    Me: hmm I thought so
    Mum: What?
    Me: Oh, I've just gone deaf in that ear again
    Mum: ...?
    Me: What?
    Mum: Again!!!?
    Me: Yeah. It happens every week or so. I'll be fine in a couple of minutes
    Mum: How long has this .......
    Me: Let's see, ummm... about four years I guess
    Mum: Why havn't you mentioned this before??!!!!
    Me: It never came up I guess. It's probebly nothing.

    Hypocondria was never my problem. Although, my arms go numb when someone mentions lead. Oh shit why did I have to write that?

  34. Count me in. I remember the first time I had an actual aura preceding a migraine. I got the tunnel vision, and blind spots, one half of my face was warm - the other, cold. This went on for 20 minutes and I was convinced it was a stroke or brain tumor. Then it eased off rather rapidly and WHAM the headache hit. It still never clicked until the next time what was happening. I can imagine aphasia would be incredibly distressing. Great.. something new to worry about.. ;)

  35. I so had the same thing happen... I was convinced the red bump on my arm was MRSA... Those mats I was doing sit ups on totally looked suspicious! HA! Im so glad I'm not alone!

  36. Jenn, when I had dizziness as well as a bunch of other symptoms, my doctor had me checked for brain tumor, as well as a lot of other things. It was all allergies, of course. I was naive back then: my allergies were being treated; how could they be causing such serious symptoms?
    I listed all my symptoms and thought "Why does this sound familiar?" and then I listened to the tests Dr. B ordered and thought "Oh! Brain tumor!"
    See? Not hypochondriac Lite--some other version.

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

  37. Oh I am really suffering from hypochondria this year- first a breast cancer scare, and currently pains in my chest which are probably not a heart attack (but I am having tests next week anyway). I think I know why- my mother's cancer came back in several places last Christmas and she died in May. So I have been brought face to face with my own mortality, and it's scary. The funny thing is that once I have the test result and it's all fine the real pains I am suffering seem to fade away. i hope for my husband's sake that it wears off soon...

  38. Bossy is very relieved to find out she isn't alone.

  39. This was very very funny for me. I worked in the medical/health field for 15 years, 5 of them as an editor for a medical journal so the problem was I knew WAY more than I should about little-know, and even "popular" health problems. During the years I worked for an oncology company the "joke" was we never just had a headache--it was always a brain tumor. Of course, it never was... I'm "waiting and seeing" about that little dark rough patch on my forehead... skin cancer?

  40. Uh, geez, that describes me to a T. I've thought I had everything from cancer to flesh eating diseases that I read about in my bio classes. They say medical students are all hypochondriacs, and I can believe that, just basic biology texts have way to many options and ugly pictures. What saves me, however, is how much I HATE going to the doctor, especially since the few times I have, I turned out to be fine :)

  41. Hi Lia,
    Just wanted to let you know that there was something funky with the "leave a comment" link over at your blog. Such a pretty layout! Maybe it was something I was doing wrong, but I couldn't get a comment pane to open up.

    Anyway, thanks for stopping by!

  42. Gads... I think I am Hypochodriac Lite LITE!

    As in, I rarely go to the doctor or look up stuff on the internet, but I do notice things and worry a little. But unless whatever it is worsens, I don't bother to actually DO anything.

    But maybe, if I do go in for a check-up, I'll mention it if it is something that is still worrying me.

    OTOH, when my dad was diagnosed with a glioblastoma brain tumor, I looked up everything I could find online and the scenarios were horrific! It scared the living daylights out of me and made me worry more than I already was, since the prognosis was, essentially, Dad would die in a year. Fortunately, I had the good sense not to share any of the links with any of my siblings. I just kept all that to myself and hoped for the best. And Dad died in his sleep, after having been in full possession of his wits with none of the awful scenarios ever coming to pass.

    My latest worry is that I sometimes get a pain in my chest right where my heart is and sometimes it is in my left arm as well. Usually when sitting on the sofa, watching TV, LOL! I had chest pains as a child, worse ones and it never amounted to anything. My blood work puts me at low risk of heart disease, and I never have this when exercising, but I worry a little.

  43. crabby, i believe this post of yours saved me an ER visit last night.

  44. i'm not going to read through all of the comments this post got, but after you posted it, did you have people telling you that you should go to a doctor anyway because it sounds like you had a stroke? yeah way to help me not be a hypochondriac, people. if it happened during any other situation where the visual distortion and headache were happening, i would have freaked out, but i mean come one, it was obviously just a bad migraine!

  45. OK, found my home, both a doctor and a medical lawyer, my goal has been to have every test needed to rule out every illness and other's not yet named. Funny, no...its actually very sad. But, maybe I take my work home, must tell you, I have had my share of medical issues and lived. fear of the unknown illness, hmmm, crazy, or just aware. Gotta go, have to check my BP.....


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