Googling our health symptoms is as reflexive as wincing when we stub a toe.
When we feel a sharp tightening in our shoulder, or a piercing heat down our leg, or just about any symptom, rather than head to a doctor’s office, we open our laptop and let an algorithm tell us what’s wrong.
That urge may be strong, but we should resist it. “Seeking online information without also seeking professional advice is a road to disaster,” says Glenn Burke, certified athletic therapist at Advanced Physiotherapy and Sports Medicine in Hamilton.
When it comes to understanding pain, online symptom checkers seem to make it easy. Just click problems – shooting pain, dull ache, tenderness, swelling, etc. – age, gender and a few other details. Next, wait half a second for the program to generate a list of possible causes and treatment recommendations. Often those recommendations include seeking the professional advice we were avoiding in the first place, but they often also suggest home remedies, stretches, and exercises.
Comparison of Physician and Computer Diagnostic Accuracy” in JAMA Internal Medicine, doctors make the right diagnosis nearly twice as often as online symptom checkers – even when they don’t see the patient face-to-face.
“Consider me Sherlock Holmes,” says Burke. “You give me the clues, and I deduce through objective testing, subjective interpretation and my experience what could be wrong with you.”
Dr. Google can’t provide that kind of testing – it only gets our clues, and is not able to combine this with orthopedic testing. In addition, Google often requires only simple descriptions of our pain, which may miss larger issues due to pain referral. For example, referred pain down their left arm could be the result of a shoulder injury but it could also be the sign of a heart attack.
“As athletic therapists, we’re taught not to chase pain, we don’t just look where the pain is located,” says Burke. “Pain in the hamstring can be so much more than a hamstring problem. You could have one of 20 conditions, and if you treat the wrong thing, the consequences can be bad.”
So, should we ever Google our symptoms? Sure, it’s hard not to resist the temptation.
“We’re in an information age,” says Burke. “My patients can tell me they found something online and ask me about it, that’s not a bad thing. But they should view everything online from a jaded perspective and choose their sources carefully.”
“Look at information, take it in and understand what it’s saying, then get professional advice,” says Burke. “You need a pro on your team.”
Glenn is the Clinical Director and Athletic Therapist at Advanced Physiotherapy & Sports Medicine in Hamilton, Ontario. He is the former medical manager of the Canadian wheelchair rugby team and was an AT with the Canadian Football League. Glenn is a hockey dad to two boys and husband to a very understanding wife!