WebMD’s Symptom Checker: Crack for OCD Heads

by Bill Brenner on November 16, 2012

WebMD has a fantastic thing called the Symptom Checker. Have a headache and numbness in the toes? Just punch it into the symptom checker and get a diagnosis.

Mood music:


In the hands of an OCD patient, this thing can provide hours of obsessive-compulsive fun, as you pinpoint every ache and pain in your body and have the Symptom Checker tell you what’s the matter.

The first thing you do is point to parts of a human body displayed in the first column on the page. If the problem area is the abdomen, click there and a list of possible symptoms pop up. Click the different symptoms (bloating, lumps, etc.) to collect them in the second column. The third column gives you a list of possible ailments. Click bloody vomit or vomit that resembles coffee grounds, and a red box pops up telling you to get “emergency medical attention.” Given all the coffee I consume, it’s hard to imagine my vomit not looking like coffee grounds.

Occasionally you’ll get a diagnosis for something you’ve probably never heard of, like┬áMallory-Weiss Syndrome. This affliction is some pretty serious shit. WebMD describes it this way:

Mallory-Weiss syndrome occurs in the mucous membrane where the esophagus and stomach connect. Vomiting or coughing strongly or for a long period of time can cause the membrane to tear and possibly bleed. Seizures may also cause tearing. People in their 40s or 50s are most likely to have Mallory-Weiss tears, but children can have them, too. Pregnant women are also at risk due to vomiting in the first trimester. Mallory-Weiss tears often heal on their own in a few days. In rare cases, surgery is required. Blood loss is a concern, so get medical care right away.

I get a lot of headaches, so I played around with the Symptom Checker for a while. I already know my trouble stems from sinuses that refuse to drain properly, but WebMD offers a much wider list of possible ailments: brain tumor, brain bleed, and so on. Go back a decade, when I would feel a pain and instantly assume the worst, and this potential diagnosis would have catapulted me straight to the nearest emergency room.

It turns out that pulling whiskers from my beard is a sign of bone infection. I always thought I did it as a distraction when the kids ignore my commands to pick up the room or shut the TV.

Bottom line: This can be a useful tool, but if you’re an OCD case it can be the catalyst for endless worry and panic. Like any medical symptom tool to be found online, it lists everything from the slightest to most serious conditions. I can poke fun now, but back when my fear and anxiety were out of control I’d have played with this thing for hours, breaking into a cold sweat and assuming the worst.

If you’re in that situation now, my advice is to walk away. A tool like this is dangerous in the hands of an unstable mind. If you’re in a calmer state of mind, it’s nothing more than a time-sucking distraction.

It’s a lot like Facebook, actually.

Sympton Checker

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