Why we don’t recommend Dr Google

Dr Jess Milsom

We have all been there; you have a headache, jump on to Dr Google to see what is wrong and end up reading you might have cancer. For those of us who can decipher the quality of the information, self-diagnosing via Google can be helpful. We can weed out the poor information and find quality research that gives us a greater understanding of our injury and/or pain. But, for most of us, it can cause more harm than good.

The results found online can be:

The wrong diagnosis

When you enter all your symptoms into the search bar, it will present you with a list of conditions. These will generally be ranked from least to most serious. Your eyes will scan through all the options and leap to the most severe and usually most unlikely cause.
When a health professional completes an assessment, they do not just think about your list of symptoms. They will consider your family history, past medical history and perform a thorough physical examination. They will also ask ‘red flag’ questions that often rule out these severe conditions. They will then use the results of all the information to rule out the majority of the list, leaving them with the most likely cause.
There’s a saying in the health industry that common things happen commonly. When we google our symptoms, we take away the learnt experience and knowledge of a university-trained health professional. A common condition – tension headache – could be misdiagnosed by Google as a much less common pathology – stroke or a brain tumour. 

Potentially lead to health anxiety

If we misdiagnose ourselves with a severe and concerning condition, that will undoubtedly lead to anxiety and stress. When this happens, we can be on high alert for other symptoms and signs that fit into the picture of Dr Google’s diagnosis. For example, you injure yourself at soccer training. You have pain that goes into the back of your thigh. You ask Dr Google, and it says you have sciatica and tells you that you may have weakness in your leg. Suddenly, your leg feels difficult to move due to the pain.
Dr Google is missing the information that sciatica (radiculopathy) can be confirmed or denied by a neurological examination performed by your health professional. Your chiropractor will complete a thorough neurological exam; of leg strength, pinprick sensation, and reflexes. If all tests are negative – you have strong muscles, intact sensation, and strong reflexes – then it is not sciatica and is more likely a muscular or joint cause. Dr Google has made you stressed and anxious when this injury will recover with minimal treatment and slight changes in your daily activities.
On the flip side, the diagnosis may be correct. However, how the information is described, might change your perception of what your recovery looks like. Without the big picture, we may be pessimistic about our recovery. For example, if you are told you have a ‘slipped disc’ you subconsciously associate your back as a fragile body part that may play up at any moment. If you are told, you have a ‘disc herniation which can heal’ you’re less likely to feel you have a fragile back and are more likely to participate in weight-bearing activities which will be crucial to recovery and regaining load tolerance.  

Be generic, and not specific to your situation

Google will not consider all life factors, like what medications you currently take and your stress and training load. Health, well-being, and pain perception are multi-layered. Often looking at the structure independent of the surrounding joints will be limited in how well you can recover from your pain, and will not play a role in preventing injury re-occurrence.

Be written by anyone

Anyone can make a website, offer advice on a forum and edit a Wikipedia page. Not all resources are written by university-trained health professionals. While this is what makes the internet such an interesting place, it can also lead to a lot of poor quality, and often incorrect health information. Furthermore, some websites may even play into our health anxieties so they can push their product or service onto us. Google will not highlight the best quality literature, clinical guidelines, and empirical research. This ability to source the best research and weed out the rubbish are skills taught to university-trained health professionals to ensure the methods used in clinical practice are effective and safe.

Long story short: speak to a health professional!

A good rule of thumb is if you are worried enough to google it, it is time to get a professional opinion. We have done all the hard work at university to give you the most likely diagnosis and the best information on how to get better. The human body is complex, but with years of training in the health field, you are more likely to recover quickly and without the injury reoccurring than if you were to seek help from Dr Google.