The very little known nerve disorder called trigeminal neuralgia shot to instant fame after actor Salman "six-pack" Khan, 45, underwent surgery for it in the US this week. Thanks to Dr Google, everyone now has an opinion on the actor's painful nerve in the jaw, which causes, countless people have informed me since yesterday, "fleeting bursts of sharp, stabbing, electric-shocks that last for a few seconds to a few minutes".
If the Dabang star had been half as good at power searching than delivering surprise blockbusters, he could have saved himself the pain and diagnosed himself four years ago when he first developed the symptoms. Instead, the "film actor, artist, painter, humanitarian," as Khan describes himself on twitter, kept an upper lip so stiff that people began wondering whether his painful nerve was caused by a botox shot — a neurotoxin that smoothes facial wrinkles and creases by paralysing them — gone wrong.
Whatever the cause, the instant interest generated by his raw nerve is way higher than the not-so-young Khan's illiterate tweets (‘Challo c u guys. On my was (sic) to fix the short circut (sic) in my nerve, take care n hope u like body guard (sic)", or even his new film, Bodyguard.
The way trigeminal neuralgia went viral this week underscores how people are increasingly using the internet as a source of health information. No study in India has examined the internet as a source of medical information , but a US study published last year found that 74% people used web searches for information on a broad range of subjects, with 60% saying the prevention and care information they got online was the same as or better than what they were told by their doctors.
Doctors insist they are not threatened by parallel sources of information. "Apart from the web, people also get information from newspapers, magazines and television. Some of the information is reliable and up to date, but some isn't, so it's my job as a doctor to help patients tell the good from the bad," I was told by a doctor who says a greater part of his consultation now goes in helping people "unlearn" what they've read and heard.
The trick is to be sceptical and take what you read and hear with a pinch of salt. If you read about a certain drug or behaviour (say, smoking) causing a 100% or two-fold increase in heart attacks, don't panic. The large increase sounds worrying, but with some perspective, it may not be. If for every 10,000 people not taking the drug or smoking, there are two heart attacks, then a two-fold or 100% increase really means two more attacks.
Next, consider the source of the information. For background information on health, a government, university, hospital or newspaper website is far more likely to be credible than a, say, blog or an online chat forum. Look for current, unbiased information based on research that has undergone clincial trials and has been funded by the government or an unbiased body.
Next comes making it all clearer than mud. The whetting process is critical, more so as some studies contradict each another. Reliable studies are the ones that have been published in a peer-reviewed scientific journals, which means the method and quality of the research has been examined and okayed by other medical experts.
And, whatever you do, do not treat what you read as a prescription. Everything you read is just another step in the path to a better quality of life. Your doctor is trained to help you choose the right one.