October 21, 2009

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:

One day 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 exaggerated 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.)

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?

[Did this post sounded annoyingly familiar? Sorry! It is indeed a re-run while I'm on vacation. Be back soon with new posts!]


  1. Given the few health scares with my husband and my doggies (seperately, not together...that'd be weird :) I'm constantly worried that any of them will have it again or that something will happen to them! Not as in a debilitating thing, but if they approach showing symptoms in the slightest I watch them to make sure.
    Me? I do it only slightly with myself. At least that's my story.

  2. Happens to me on occasion. I generally take a wait and see approach, unless it is severe pain when taking more than just a shallow breath. Every other time, the wait and see has turned out to be right. That time, it turned out to be pneumonia with pleurisy, so it was a good thing not to wait.

  3. I used to worry a bit, then I got over it and tend to ignore symptoms. Neither way is ideal.

  4. I had to laugh at this post. One time I was visiting my friend over Memorial Day weekend, She was most definitely hypochondriac and I think it wore off on me that weekend. I was going to the bathroom and I had a little burning sensation, pain when I peed. So I had never had a UTI before so I asked her if she thought that was what it was etc. So she brings out her huge Symptoms book and has me convinced I have Gonorreah, even though there was no possible way that could be true, I was freaked out, so we went to a clinic and you guessed it, I had an UTI. I was never so freaked out in my life. I told her to put the symptoms book away it's no wonder she has every ailment under the sun.

  5. I had this before my mother died at 50. Since then, well. I am happy to report that losing weight and eating well has a) reduced my mystery aches and b) reduced my health anxiety, I guess because I'm pretty much doing what I can and the rest is out of my hands. As far as symptoms go, I am watchful for "serious" and "progressive." If it goes away, or if I have an Occam's Razor style explanation for it, I don't go to the doctor. The one thing that drives me crazy is breast self exams. I have always had totally lumpy breasts and I never know quite what I'm looking for, even though I'm a nurse and I'm supposedly trained in this stuff. I just kind of feel around nervously every few weeks and hope I'll know something worrisome from something normal-for-me.

  6. Well, I am a worry wart. Being part of the group that can't afford insurance, it makes it worse. Plus, with the cancers of some family members, that scares me & my grandmother having Alzheimer's. I try not to let it get to me & sometimes I succeed at that but with the stats that 40% of people without insurance will die sooner.. well.. obsessing is too often these days.

    The workouts help me though!

  7. I was laughing very hard reading this because I too suffer from hypochondria lite! Good thing it's never amounted to anything.

  8. about a year ago I had chest pains when running and immediately thought heart attack. In fact (after a couple of check ups) we concluded it was inflammation of the cartilage in the rib cage. But the more I worried about it the more I got the chest pain...
    more recently bright pink urine was of course not some esoteric disease but the result of eating a large plate full of roasted beetroot!

  9. Hahah! You know I'm a champion hypochondriac. Just last night in fact I was freaking out. See - 4 children = 4 times the worrying fun!

  10. Too funny! Just this morning I was at the doctor for a pain in my tail bone (literally a pain in the a** when I try to run). After reading about various illnesses (sciatica, osteoporosis, degenerative spine disease) I made the appointment. The gist of the summary? Hmm, you're a runner? Sometimes things hurt. It's probably nothing. Take an anti-inflammatory a few hours before trying to run again and see if that helps. Since none of the tests that he did came back positive and there is no pain at all when doing anything else, I'm hoping that it's since gone away and I can get back to my normal routine (slowly building up to it, of course!). Probably just need the reassurance in my mind that it's nothing serious and that there's no tumor growing at the bottom of my spine.

  11. I’m a health writer, so I think I’m dying or becoming severely deformed on a semi-regular basis. Migraines are the worst for me. Even though I’ve had four within the past four years, I still freak out when the flashing lights start, and say my goodbyes to my husband as I lose vision and go numb over the entire left half of my body. Yep, I know by now it’s a migraine. But what if this time it’s really a stroke...

  12. I get aphasia before and after migraines.
    Feels like my IQ had gone down to about 5 or so. Nothinlike looking at something and not remembering what it is called, or use the wrong word for things. Until I was told it was normal, it freaked me out. My husband get to play "guess what I actually mean". Good times.
    God help me when I'm old...:)

  13. I'm just glad you recovered from that bout of leprosy that you had a couple weeks ago ;)

  14. Cyberchondria and Hypochondria Lite! I love it!

    Yes, that's me. I am known as the immediate Googler type. I have this weird thumping that my ear gets and I think I'm going deaf by morning. I have a weird floaty in my eye and I remember how Mary on Little House on the Prairie woke up blind one day and am convinced that's going to happen to me. Anyhoo. Yes, the saving grace for me is 1. Being Lazy. and 2. Fear of looking stupid at the doctors. (Stupiphobia?)

    There is one time when something very strange happened (I saw sparkles that wouldn't go away) and it turned out to be pre-eclampsia (I was pregnant) so I was glad to mention that one to the doctor.

    As for the other things, I can still see and hear, so far so good. I think the key is to listen to your body, I really think people just kind of "know" when something really isn't right.

    I did laugh at this post, however, from beginning to end. Hilarious!

  15. You are so funny.

    So I have the opposite problem. I was brought up in a family that was of the "Eh, walk it off. You'll be OK in a few minutes" ilk.

    Someday, I'm going to have a stroke and respond by grabbing an ice pack and a couple Advil, then starting to cook dinner.

  16. Some of the things that I experience, I ignore and they go away. If they don't, then I go to the Dr. I hate it though when I know I have something (pneumonia) and they insist on checking first - duh, I get it every year - I think I know the symptoms by now.

    As for the sparkle warnings for migraines - try taking an antacid and eat something or drink milk... then take a regular pain pill of your choice. It will stop the migraine from happening in most cases. The sparkles are from the acids in your stomach. Don't have any clues for the aphasia, but it might work there too.

  17. Really?
    Antacids fight migraine sparkles?
    Kewl. Learn something new every day...

  18. I think its good to be aware of your body but I am as guilty as others for jumping to wrong conclusions.

  19. Yeah I was pretty much a hypochondriac. Funny thing is, the better I treat myself and the better I feel the less I worry about silly things.Wait...what is that bump...

  20. I come from a long line of people who said "If it's not hanging off by a piece of connective tissue, it's fine."

    My dad walked around with a saddle thrombus in a pulmonary artery for three days. For the uninitiated, the usual life expectancy for such things is three MINUTES.

    And, since I'm the only vaguely medical person in the family, I tend to overreact to what *they* have and underreact to what *I* have. Headache? They're having a bleed in the brain! *My* headache? Probably a brain tumor, but I'll die of it anyhow, so who cares?

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  22. About an hour after reading this post, I went to the bathroom and noticed a pimple on my leg. I panicked thinking "I KNOW I just read something about pimples and melanoma! What was it?!?!"

    Luckily, my reason caught up with my emotion. I never realized I had hypochondria until now. I wonder if you can die from it?


  23. I recognize myself in you! Only, I did have a weird freckle on my leg and it did turn out to be melanoma... But yes, my retinas are still here, the Bell's palsy was just the way I'd slept and I'm still not pregnant, despite subjectively having had every symptom, or array of symptoms, in the book.

  24. I frequently have hypochondriac tendencies, so much that I find myself on the internet searching for the latest disease. I find its helpful to talk to others about their problems and have found one site: Hypochondriac's Relief ,
    that is helpful. Hope it helps other people.


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