Forget About It: Worrying about Illnesses You Don’t Have

Hypochondriacs are people who obsessed with the idea that they have an undiagnosed serious or life threatening disease. For them, every skin change indicates malignant melanoma, every change in bowel habits signals colon cancer, and every episode of dizziness becomes a fatal heart arrhythmia. Those who obsess about serious conditions are convinced their occasional memory lapses are Alzheimer’s, their feelings of fatigue are Lyme Disease, and their lack of coordination is multiple sclerosis. These are people seriously intent on receiving a medical diagnosis for their psychiatric disease. It’s easy to become frustrated with them as there’s nothing wrong with them, but it can take years of tests and specialists before someone flat out tells them that.

Luckily, the majority of people who worry too much about the vagaries of the human body suffer from, as I like to call it, petite hypochondria. Instead of obsessing over the specter of an undiagnosed life threatening illness, they obsess over minor ailments. This includes the young female who is certain her cough of one day is pneumonia, the older male who wants to describe the color and consistency of his stool because it’s not his “normal”, the first time mother who is worried her child’s temperature of 99.1 degrees signifies a serious infection, and the elderly female who gets dizzy when she stands up too quickly and becomes convinced she’s going to die. These patients can be time consuming, but they can be reasoned with.

Then there’s the patients who suffer from the disease of the month (or year or decade). Twenty years ago medicine saw an explosion in fibromyalgia, a disease characterized by fatigue, muscle aches, and “tender points.” After that, peanut allergies became the rage.  You couldn’t swing a bag of peanuts around without someone promising an anaphylactic reaction. Epi-pens were passed out like Halloween candy and peanuts were banned from most public places. Now a terrible epidemic of gluten allergy has descended upon us. Heralded by joint pains, diarrhea, abdominal bloating, and mental fogginess, gluten free diets have become the answer to a host of symptoms that may, or may not, be related to gluten. I think the universe reaches a tipping point on obscure diseases and suddenly everyone is convinced they have (insert name of disease of the month/year/decade). In these cases, the disease becomes a source of pride. It’s not surprising that there’s never been an epidemic of patients having herpes, hemorrhoids, or yeast infections in their fat folds.

How do you tell if your concern for your health is becoming a little overboard?  I have some easy questions.

1.) Does your doctor’s office try to talk you out of coming into the office or presenting to the ER?
2.) Have you been seen by more than three specialists in the last year who couldn’t find anything wrong with you?
3.) Do the people who draw your blood have to consult a reference book to determine what tubes your (obscure labs) need to be drawn with?
4.) Do you bypass the over the counter medication for minor ailments because you need to consult with the doctor in case it’s more serious than constipation or heartburn?
5.) Do you seek healthcare after vomiting once or for feeling like you have a fever?

If you can answer yes to two or more questions, it might be time to consider redirecting your energy on something other than yourself. Just saying. Leave some room in the healthcare system for patients who really need it.

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