The Dangers of Self-Diagnosis

Laura Mitchell's picture
By Laura Mitchell on September 3, 2018

I love to hike, and I’ve been on countless miles of trails since moving to this beautiful region a decade ago. As much as I know how important good shoes are for healthy hiking, I purposely went on a week-long backpacking trip this spring wearing old, non-supportive shoes with worn out treads.

The reason? They were the only ones I had that didn’t aggravate the painful symptoms of Morton’s neuroma, a foot condition I had diagnosed myself with after looking it up on the Internet.

“A little learning is a dangerous thing.” –Alexander Pope

As it turns out, I don’t have Morton’s neuroma. After hiking 60 miles carrying 35 extra pounds of gear and developing excruciating pain at the balls of both feet, I finally consulted a foot and ankle specialist and learned my true diagnosis: a torn plantar plate.

The shoes I had held on to for so long to prevent aggravating a nonexistent neuroma lacked the support my inflamed foot tissue needed, resulting in further damage.

Self-diagnosis is nothing new. Medical students routinely believe they’ve fallen victim to the diseases and conditions they’re studying—until the next chapter in the textbook. And the American Medical Association issued an ethical recommendation for licensed physicians to refrain from treating themselves and family members.

We are all inclined toward problem-solving, and the vast amount of health information now available online enables more people to attempt to diagnose themselves than ever before.

According to a recent study, however, two-thirds of that online information is incorrect, subjective and outdated, resulting in unnecessary doctor visits for people with “cyberchondria” and missed opportunities for people like me, who think they can power through their ailments without medical care.

In both cases, this can result in increased costs, more complications and a longer recovery time.

Foot pain makes exercise challenging, and a lack of exercise often leads to other chronic health problems. Fortunately for me, getting proper treatment from Carilion Clinic podiatrist John R. Clements, D.P.M., means I can still hike as many miles as I want.

Had I seen my primary care physician when I first experienced symptoms, however, I may have not needed to see a specialist or have expensive custom orthotic inserts made for my feet. More importantly, I might not have ended up with a chronic medical condition at all.

So how should we learn about and take ownership of our health when we feel pain or something “off” in our body or mind—or on behalf of a loved one? 

See Your Doctor or Advanced Care Practitioner Regularly

Start by choosing a primary care provider and seeing them for well visits/checkups in addition to when you are sick or injured. An ongoing relationship with your provider is the best way to get the care you need, when you need it. Ask your doctor or advanced care practitioner about online sources they recommend for information relevant to you.

Use the Internet Judiciously

Seek out sources that aim to inform you, not sell to you. Legitimate medical sites like Carilion Living are reliable precisely because they do not encourage self-diagnosis.

Rather, they act as a first step in gathering information. In this article, as in all the content on Carilion Living, we encourage readers to consult with their provider about their symptoms, health concerns and lifestyle changes.

Seek out websites that are not for profit. The same companies that air advertisements and “infomercials” for expensive prescription drugs have websites that use written content and testimonials to sell their products.

Instead of “asking your doctor” for a specific medication, “ask your doctor” about your symptoms.

Bring an Advocate

Medical concerns can be anxiety-provoking on their own. After going down the online rabbit hole of symptom research, they can be overwhelming.

Write your symptoms and worries down before your appointment, and bring a friend or family member with you. They can be more objective and remember your questions and the provider’s answers more completely.

Still have questions? Ask your doctor! (You knew we’d say that.)
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This article was reviewed by Mark Greenawald, M.D.,
vice chair of Carilion Clinic’s Family Medicine Department and professor of Family Medicine at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine.