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Looking for dire news on the internet is a health hazard—for doctors just like the rest of us.

I was training for my first half marathon a few years ago when a mysterious pain developed in my lower left abdomen—a dull ache that spiked into a shooting bolt when I rose from a chair or turned over in bed. Like any good child of the information age, I took to the internet to research the possible causes of what ailed me. I quickly ruled out appendicitis (the appendix is on the right) and narrowed down my probable diagnosis to either ulcerative colitis or inoperable cancer of the kidneys.

I then learned more than anyone ever wanted to know about the various cysts that can form on ovaries, including a truly creepy aberration known as a dermoid cyst, made of hair, teeth, and sweat glands. (There were pictures, none of them good.) I grew light-headed as I pictured my reproductive organs being swallowed by something that looked like it came from a clogged shower drain.

I made an appointment to see my doctor. Maybe if I acted quickly enough, they’d be able to save my small intestine or kill the evil hairy bauble with a laser before it swallowed my fallopian tubes whole. (My knowledge of anatomy and modern medicine is essentially a mash-up of imagery from movies about outer-space battles and cartoonish drawings of the digestive tract I’ve gleaned from WebMD.)

My doctor poked around my abdomen with gentle concern without finding any clues as to the source of my discomfort. An MRI eventually revealed that all my bits and pieces were perfectly normal and healthy, and then came the real diagnosis: a pulled psoas muscle. It turned out there was no need for lasers or invasive surgery, that my discomfort could be fixed by time and simple stretching. Still, years later, the image of a dermoid cyst haunts me (there’s a reason so many horror movies feature malevolent entities covered in damp hair), and any time I have a stomachache or abdominal twitch, I fear that I’m host to one or two of the little darlings.

Anyone with a computer and a pulse has a story or two about self-diagnosing online and turning a harmless ailment into a life-threatening disease. But surely one of the perks of being a doctor is freedom from such tendencies. Armed with experience, facts, and medical training, the dangers of a wi-fi signal combined with an overactive imagination must wither under the cold light of science.

Not really, according to Dr. Stephen Nelson, MD, a pediatric hematologist at Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota, who explains that medical school is one long exercise in incorrect self-diagnosis. “While reading any book or article or listening to any lecture during medical school, you automatically decide you have whatever they’re talking about,” he says. This was particularly absurd when Nelson’s class was learning about the physical traits associated with Down Syndrome, one of which is the single palmar crease—a trait present in about one out of every 30 people. The students started to examine their palms. “There were four people in my class freaking out, convinced that they had gone through most of their lives blissfully unaware that they had Down Syndrome.”

Nelson has his own tale of internet-based self-diagnosis gone wrong. (Doctors, they’re just like us!) About 15 years ago, he experienced some numbness and tingling in his hands. Fearing that it might be multiple sclerosis, he decided to supplement his medical degree by going online to do some research. Pretty soon, he learned that MS is more common in people from the northern half of the United States, starting at the latitude that runs through Newport News, Virginia.

“I thought, ‘I was born and raised in Newport News! Surely I will be dead within days,’” Nelson recalls. “I went to a neurologist and had an MRI of my brain, which was—guess what?—
completely normal. As it turned out, I wasn’t stretching enough before swimming.”

The lesson here is clear. When an ache, pain, tingle, or bout of numbness strikes, do yourself a favor: stay off the internet, call your doctor, and start stretching. In the meantime, I’ve tried to keep my end of my bargain with the cosmos and give daily thanks for my sturdy health. The occasional internet-induced scare is a good reminder of how much we take for granted, how ultimately fragile our health really is, and how grateful we should  be.

Mo Perry is a Twin Cities writer and actor, next appearing in Torch Theater’s Prints at the Minneapolis Theatre Garage.