Careful! Scary health news can be harmful to your health

A strong story is hard to ignore. Indeed we are biologically wired to respond to storytelling. But it’s important that a good story doesn’t get in the way of good health decisions.

Consider three breaking pieces of news about people with common symptoms who turned out to have had a serious medical condition.

  • A young mother has been trying to ignore her headache for months. She mentions it to a friend – a nurse – who persuades her to see her doctor. Soon she has a CT scan and a brain tumor is discovered.
  • A man who works long days at the airport as a baggage handler notices increasing back pain. He suspects that his pain is due to his work and treats it with a heating pad and ibuprofen. When the pain gets so bad that he misses his job, he goes to his doctor, who orders an MRI. It shows a fracture in his spine.
  • A woman looks after her two young grandchildren while her parents are on vacation. She experiences episodes of palpitations as if her heart were racing. She assumes it’s because she ran around with the toddlers all day. When she almost passed out, she went to her doctor. It turned out that she has atrial fibrillation and a blood clot on her heart valve that could cause a stroke at any moment.

The gist of any story is instantly relatable: a previously healthy person develops symptoms so common that most readers have had them. Everyone initially downplays the problem and attributes the symptoms to other, entirely plausible causes. They eventually seek care after reaching a tipping point. In the end, a serious condition is found.

Captivating stories? Sure, but what’s the take home message?

Medical stories are very selected

The medical stories that make it onto screens or publications tend to be very dramatic – not very typical, informative, or even useful. Can cancer cause headaches or a fracture of the spine? Absolutely. Can palpitations be a symptom of atrial fibrillation? Certainly. But the vast majority of people with these symptoms won’t have cancer, fracture, impending stroke, or other serious medical condition. So it’s okay to find out more about it a headache, Back pain or Palpitations likely reflecting a dangerous problem, not everyone with these symptoms needs extensive testing for these conditions.

Their symptoms may sound very similar to the people in the scenarios above when you first flush. But these stories can leave out or overlook important details: headaches with hearing loss; Back pain in a person taking steroids, which can make bones break more easily; Palpitations combined with shortness of breath. These details are important and can make another person’s experience different from yours. Surely these facts would increase a doctor’s suspicion of a serious illness.

And be honest, people with common symptoms who turn out to have a common benign condition are far less likely to make their way into the print or television media. You are unlikely to hear from the man with a stressful job and daily headache, who visits multiple doctors, undergoes many tests, and ends up being diagnosed with tension headaches, even though the diagnosis is far more common than a brain tumor.

Put it in context

Dramatic or unusual medical stories can be unhelpful – or even harmful – affecting you. Stories like the one described above can be, for example

  • encourage unnecessary worry: These types of medical stories can make it difficult not to cause a disaster – that is, your mind can focus on the worst of scenarios. If you’re a headache person, reading about a person with a brain tumor who has had symptoms like yours isn’t exactly comforting.
  • Distract you from common and important health problems: A young person with palpitations from panic attacks may not get the care they need for the condition if they or their doctors focus excessively on the distant possibility of a more serious health problem.
  • Incorrectly informing you if the full picture is not provided: Some medical stories never mention how unusual the condition is or explain that people with the symptoms described are rarely diagnosed with anything serious.
  • Create the conditions for unnecessary medical examinations and tests: People can ask their doctors to test them for conditions described in a dramatic message, even if those tests aren’t really necessary. Extensive testing or imaging is more likely to find insignificant abnormalities than diagnose an unexpected (and serious) condition. This can lead to even more uncertainty, more testing, and more unnecessary worry.

Know the red flags – and don’t ignore them

Many of us minimize, streamline, or otherwise explain symptoms. Sometimes that’s a bad idea.

Anyone with a headache doesn’t need a CT scan. But it’s good to know warning signs that you should report to your doctor right away, and not ignore them. In the story of the person with a brain tumor, hearing loss indicated that it was not a typical migraine or tension headache. It turned out that the woman was a Acoustic neuroma, a rare, benign brain tumor that can affect hearing and balance.

So if you have symptoms that are troubling you, speak to your doctor to find out what is common and what symptoms should prompt a call, appointment, or visit to the emergency room.

The bottom line

Beware of the spectacular medical news story. Most of the time, it is an extraordinary situation that may not mean much to you. And it could even divert you from what is most important to your health.

Follow me on Twitter @RobShmerling

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