Self-diagnosis and the Internet: good idea or bad idea?

I know I’m not the only one who turns to the Internet when I have an unfamiliar ache or pain, in my case usually as a result of less-than-perfect running form and stubbornness.  I can’t remember what I used to do when something was wrong with me before the Internet. DrSpock I remember what I did when there was something wrong with my kids, way back in the dim, distant past.  I took my Dr. Spock off the bookshelf and looked up the symptoms.  The symptoms were always there, easy to find, with solid advice, usually of the reassuring kind.  Dr. Spock included diagnosis, treatment, and advice on when it was essential to see the doctor.  He was the Internet on a shelf for taking care of your kids! But how did we figure out what was wrong with the rest of us before Google?  And how did we decide what to do about it?

If you google “self diagnosis”, both the pros and the cons of online medicine show up right away.  You find articles warning against e-hypochondria, the tendency to search online for the worst possible rare diagnosis that vaguely conform to your symptoms and then convince yourself that the end is nigh.  There’s no doubt that the Internet can be a hypochondriac’s best friend and the doctor’s worst nightmare.  But regardless of your symptoms, the Internet can also point you to articles and forums that help you figure out a probable diagnosis, providing the kind of sensible advice that Dr. Spock used to provide to anxious young parents.  It seems that most doctors are increasingly comfortable with this approach, even encouraging patients to take more ownership of their own health.  As long as patients let their doctors know that they have been looking online, the online background information is a good starting point for a patient-doctor discussion of symptoms.

While online articles relating to health may run the gamut from helpful to misleading, online posts on running injuries are almost always helpful to me.  There is no doubt that self-diagnosis should be approached with care, and that in a perfect world, you should consult with a medical specialist.  The problem is that family doctors often don’t have experience with running injuries.  The Internet provides answers you can’t get from your doctor unless he or she is a runner or a sports specialist.  From the Internet you are reminded that you are not alone.  Sure, you should have stopped running sooner to let that twinge rest, but there is hope.  For some reason I feel a lot better knowing that what I’ve done to myself – again – is shared by runners of all ages and abilities.  And as disheartening as it is to have to stop running while I heal, it is reassuring to be able to put a name to whatever I’ve done to the tendon/muscle/joint I’ve abused this time.  Don’t ask me why, but it is!

Each time I type in new symptoms from an overuse injury and immediately find a credible answer, I am amazed anew at Google’s power.

hamstring14Example 1:  Just recently I typed in “pain upper hamstring running” and immediately discovered what’s wrong: I have high hamstring tendinopathy, a condition almost exclusively found in runners.  I had never heard of it before; I guess I haven’t been running long enough!  But the symptoms, so clearly laid out in this blog posting by a trail runner and fellow blogger (Dealing with high hamstring tendinopathy: a practical guide), left me in no doubt.  My physiotherapist agreed with that diagnosis and is treating it accordingly.  Meanwhile, the online articles include stretches and exercises to help at each phase of recovery.  How good is that?!

Example 2: Several weeks ago I was kneeling in a closet looking for something and felt a sharp pain under the side of my knee; it felt like I was kneeling on something hard.  I brushed away at the surface under my knee, but didn’t find anything.  Eventually I realized that what I had felt was my knee itself, just in this one place.  So I googled “sharp pain outer side knee when kneeling” and found lots of people reporting the same symptoms.  One person’s doctor suggested that he try to not kneel on it!  I will mention it to my doc the next time I’m there, but the online info gave me a good idea of what it could be and left me reassured that it’s not life-threatening.  Meanwhile, I try not to kneel on that knee.  Pretty simple advice, but it’s working.

Example 3: I had to do lots of googling a few years ago when the ball of my left foot became painful whenever I ran for more than 8 miles.  At that time I really had to dig.  Eventually, after trying lots of solutions, I found a post from another runner who had tried something that worked for him, and lo and behold, those little blue Foot Smart gel pads also worked for me (in posts Fussy feet, happy feet and Here an orthotic, there an orthotic).  Changed my life.  During that particular quest, it became clear that there were lots of runners out there who were looking for answers.  The online world has given us a chance to help each other by sharing our own experiences and solutions.

Almost every running injury is a soft tissue injury, and almost every soft tissue injury is treated by R.I.C.E. (rest, ice, compression, elevation) and ibuprofen.  Initially, the R is probably the most important, as much as I hate to admit it.  Having a good physiotherapist and/or massage therapist to see you through the recovery process can make a big difference.  Strengthening the weaknesses that caused the problem in the first place is key once healing is underway; both your physio and your favourite online posts will have lots to say about that.

runningwomanThe diagnosis having been made, it’s time to concentrate on healing and slowly (too slowly) regaining running form.  Each time I’ve taken this frustrating journey I’ve found it useful – and comforting – to come across fellow runners who have used cyberspace to share their own stories and hard-earned knowledge.  To all those of you who have shared, thank you!


Just a few helpful posts on running injuries:

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6 Responses to Self-diagnosis and the Internet: good idea or bad idea?

  1. Roy McCarthy says:

    Very interesting Jane. I’ve been uber-lucky in my 10 years or so of running – a couple of twisted ankles and that’s it. As well as undoubted good luck I constantly try to run ‘properly’ (i.e. following the basic rules of good form) and to encourage my groups to do likewise. It generally seems to work and prevention is certainly better than cure.


    • Jane Fritz says:

      You are undoubtedly biomechanically perfect, like my husband! And you know about proper running form, unlike so many of us (me, at least) who started with considerable lack of info. It turns out that poor biomechanics will always lead to some issues, which need continual monitoring, but you are right on with the message of learning and keeping proper form. Learning that, through the Chi Running book, saved me. Except for a few stepbacks, of course!


  2. Barbara Trenholm says:

    So very true, Jane. As “researchers,” our tendency is to go to the Internet to learn all that we can about what is troubling us. However, my doctor has asked me not to search the Internet and try to self-diagnose because I sometimes have gone down the wrong path or read misleading or non-supported or insufficient information. Still, I can’t help but to try to figure out what is going on. The Internet was particularly helpful recently to understand what will be required in upcoming shoulder surgery now that an MRI and x-rays have determined the exact problem (after 18 months of it being misdiagnosed :)).


    • Jane Fritz says:

      Shoulder problems could keep me going for several blogs. I am glad to hear that you are going for surgery; everyone I know who has had that has recovered well. I despair at the lack of info and understanding most of our doctors have about shoulder/rotator cuff problems and how soon it would be helpful to refer their patients to a specialist. I went for 1 year with one shoulder and 2 years with the other, sleeping on ice packs and gulping ibuprofen. That shouldn’t be necessary. Good luck, Barb.


  3. Thanks for this note. I actually wrote my article a year and a half ago, because there was very little to be found online on high hamstring tendinopathy then (and there still is IMO). It was a frustrating experience for me that relied heavily on trial and error. Glad it was of help!


    • Jane Fritz says:

      It just goes to show the power of the Internet. A year and a half later, your experience and advice is still helping others. On the other hand, if you’re still not healed and not running, I don’t need to know.:)


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