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When Medical School Students Become Obsessive Hypochondriacs

When you're around sick people all day, you start thinking you're sick yourself.
Ashwin Rodrigues
Brooklyn, US
​Image: hjschneider/Shutterstock

You're reading your textbook. You start reading about tachycardia, and your feel your heart starts racing. As you study generalized anxiety disorder, your palms are sweaty. You've just finished the chapter on gastroenteritis (commonly known as stomach flu). There's vomit on your sweater already. Thankfully, you're not suffering from Eight Mile-tis, because that doesn't exist. More likely, you have a form of hypochondria called medical school syndrome.


If this seems ridiculous to you, here is a very rudimentary test: Imagine reading about a man who has such an itchy nose. You delve through pages and pages describing his symptoms, and the havoc it wreaked on his personal life. The itching torments him, and no matter what he does, it cannot be soothed. Don't itch your nose.

Aside from this dumb made-up test, medical school syndrome (also known as medical student's disease) makes sense from a number of perspectives. Priming, as described by Psychology Today, "refers to to activating particular representations or associations in memory just before carrying out an action or task." The example provided is "a person who sees the word 'yellow' will be slightly faster to recognize the word 'banana.'"

With that in mind, it's not too much of a stretch that someone who's reading about influenza is quicker to associate a sneeze with the flu. You can reference an alleged real-life medical student worried about this ailment at Healthboards, an online forum for all medical-related internet inquiries. Even if the disease has not physically affected the student, there are still very real side effects to medical school syndrome. An article in the Canadian Medical Association Journal puts it bluntly in its title: "Imagined illnesses can cause real problems for medical students."

In fancy terms, medical school syndrome is classified as a somatic symptom disorder. Somatic symptom disorders have replaced somatoform disorders in the latest DSM V. While it may seem small, the change is significant.


Somatoform disorders are identified by the patient's "physical symptoms that are inconsistent with or cannot be fully explained by any underlying general medical or neurologic condition." Meanwhile, somatic symptom disorders "represent a group of disorders characterized by thoughts, feelings, or behaviors related to somatic symptoms. This category represents psychiatric conditions because the somatic symptoms are excessive for any medical disorder that may be present."

It seems the medical community is giving more credibility to mental disorders that yield physical symptoms.

In short, it seems the medical community is giving more credibility to mental disorders that yield physical symptoms. As the DSM V states, "This change in emphasis removes the mind-body separation implied in DSM-IV."

In a more lofty hypothesis, mirror neurons may perhaps responsible for medical school syndrome. Mirror neurons, as explained and made popular by this Ted Talk, fire when you observe someone participating in a specific activity. The brain could be simulating the symptoms a student is currently studying. If part of your brain fires when you notice someone picking up a ball, not just when you pick up a ball, is it too far a stretch to imagine part of your brain simulates a headache when you read about one?

On the other side of medical student syndrome, this post from NYT Wellness shows it's not always in your head. The article tells the story of a medical student, Mike, who found himself to have anemia, a low red blood cell count, when studying how to take the hematocrit (red blood cell count). He recounts a professor who assumed Mike had performed the test incorrectly, but then advised him to seek medical help. Mike eventually developed a mass in his abdomen, which a colonoscopy revealed to be colon cancer.


This medical student's story highlights the relative uniqueness to medical student syndrome: what's really dangerous is if you don't have it but think you do. Sometimes you're not imagining those symptoms. Sometimes, it's a coincidence that you're studying about the disease that you didn't know you had.

In fact, one study yielded results that did not prove that "medical students, more so than other students, seek medical advice for hypochondriacal health concerns." One could argue that medical students are less likely to seek help for their symptoms. After all, it's a common saying that doctors make the worst patients.

Most likely, you are wondering, "Why do I care about this? How does this affect me? I am not a medical student."

This is a great and valid question. Thanks to the internet, we all get to be medical students. In an instance of everything coming full circle, WebMD of all places has penned the article Internet Makes Hypochondria Worse.

Anyone can expose themselves to the dearth of information that a medical student consumes. But this might be too much. Aside from arming people with enough information to make more informed decisions, or at least help understand what they're experiencing, this age of new information also arms hypochondriacs with supporting evidence for their worst fears. The internet can become a mechanism of neurotic enablement, instead of the beloved Information Superhighway.

With every infectious disease, rash photo, and symptom description at your disposal, please ask your doctor if being a doctor is right for you.