Safe surfing: Finding online pain support

Online support

When you have a chronic back problem, no one understands how you feel like other people who share your condition.  By using the Internet, it’s possible to find literally thousands of people with similar problems.  Just as there are countless health information websites online, there is now a wealth of health boards, forums and chat groups.  You will find people with every type of back condition offering information and sharing their own experiences.

Benefits of online support

When you need support and understanding, you can quickly post a message and get responses from people who know what you are going through.  This option is available 24 hours a day from the privacy of your own home.  There are no geographical or transportation barriers. Hearing how other people have gone about solving their problems may give you ideas of things that you can do, and it may provide hope that your life can get better.  Online support can help you feel less isolated and alone, as you realize that there is a whole world of people facing similar challenges.  Just having the opportunity to put your feelings and thoughts into words can help you feel better.

Online support groups are a great place to get practical information and tips for everyday problems.  These “little things” may not seem like a big deal for health care providers, but they can greatly add to your quality of life.  People who post messages regularly often develop strong connections with one another that help them through difficult times; they feel strengthened by a large community of support.

Risks of online support

Just as there are many good things about online support, there are also some risks involved.  First, it is important to know that you may find inaccurate, dangerous, or incorrect medical information online.  It is very easy to misinterpret some of the information that you are reading, as you don’t have the visual and hearing cues that you normally get with direct face to face communication.

Even if the person writing to the online support group seems to be exactly like you, remember that you don’t really know him or her.  Always bring any information that you have found online to your own health care provider, to see if it really applies to you.  Online support groups are not the place to seek medical advice.

In any support group, you will hear many complaints and learn about negative experiences that other people have had. This may make you more anxious or discouraged about your condition.  Sometimes people vent about their other health problems, or other situations that have nothing to do with their back pain.  People usually have a greater need to share when they are having problems than when they are feeling well, so the majority of messages will be from people in pain, or who have conditions that are not responding well to treatments.  As a result, it’s possible to wind up with an overly-pessimistic view of your own health, with some unrealistic worries.

While your online friends may be a valuable source of support and connection, it’s important to be careful; don’t become so addicted to online groups that you withdraw from your family and friends.  Online relationships should not replace real-life social interactions.

Summary

If your involvement is limited to support and sharing, online support groups can be a wonderful way to cope with a health condition.  It’s better to be safe than sorry though – always evaluate any online forums that you want to join.  Some things that you will want to look for include:

  • Does the website contain advertisements?
  • Is the site trying to sell something?
  • Are the online discussions moderated by a knowledgeable volunteer or health care professional?
  • Does the content on the site go through a review process?

 

References

White, M., & Dorman, S. M. (2001). Receiving Social Support Online.  Health Education Research, 16, 693-707.