Sunday, December 28, 2008

Where Do Symptoms Go To Die?

Western or allopathic medicine represents a powerful perspective on health and healing. It provides a viewpoint that is logical and objective--in a word, scientific. It has been carefully built over centuries; it has been hard won from the grip of magical and religious thinking. It dictates that we observe illnesses and their comings and goings carefully, dispassionately, with the questions ever uppermost,"What was the cause?" and "What might be the cure?" It calls dedicated and compassionate people to its study; it aims to expand our understandings and to lighten the burdens of human suffering.

But Western or allopathic medicine--what we have been taught is "normal," "usual" medical thinking; what we often consider ALL THERE IS to health and healing--actually has some significant limitations. Conceptually, it is reductionist or atomistic: it is built on the perspective that the human body is the sum of many sub-systems and parts. There is a circulatory system of blood and lymph "plumbing" that delivers nutrients to and removes waste from the various parts of the body; in addition, there is a nervous system--comprised of the "central" nervous system (the brain and spinal cord) and their "peripheral" connections (the nerves and sensory organs)--that collects information about the environment and about the workings of the body parts, and directs the body's activities; further, there is a musculo-skeletal system made up of bones and muscles that physically support and protect the body and assure both the physical interrelationships among the parts and also the body's overall locomotion. Conceptually, there are many other body systems as well.

But a human being is more than the sum of all these systems; a living, functioning, loving, and hurting person is a wholistic* expression of these parts: their "super-summation," their integration and their coordinated effects on themselves and on other human beings and the surrounding world.

One of the results of this conceptual limitation is that Western medicine fails to appreciate that some aspects of being a human being are, frankly, more important than others. "Normal" medical thinking tends to focus on physical attributes more than on emotions, mental clarity, or spiritual satisfactions. In fact, these higher planes of human experience have a definite hierarchical relationship with one another. Most people would rather feel happiness and love (emotional health) than sacrifice these in order to be relieved of physical pains and limitations (physical health). Similarly, people often experience that mental clarity--faithfulness of memory and accuracy of understanding--take precedence over diffuse emotional "warmth." And surely spiritual health--that is, a sense of meaningfulness and purpose in life and of connection with treasured, long-term goals--trumps all the other levels of "health."

This conceptual limitation of our usual medical thinking--its lack of a wholistic and hierarchical view--would not be particularly important if it did not have significant clinical effects. But careful observations indicate that it does. For example, medical treatments commonly have "side effects." Often these are trivial--a dry mouth, transient drowsiness, or loose bowels; certainly not as important or as imposing on one's overall sense of well-being as the original symptoms the medicine was prescribed to counteract. But sometimes the "side effects" are truly annoying, even debilitating or dangerous--for example, a headache, fainting spells, or intestinal bleeding. When the symptoms being treated are "traded in" for other significant symptoms, this is referred to as "symptom substitution." But without a wholistic or hierarchical perspective, there is rarely an appreciation for the extent to which interlocking body systems may be damaged when one system--with one set of symptoms--is singled out for "treatment," that is, for symptom suppression. It is rarely recognized how interfering atomistically with one or another of the body's functions--perhaps of the body's defenses or reactions to insult** or imbalances--can lead to broader decline in well-being. A physical symptom may be removed, but "disease" on the emotional, mental, or even spiritual planes may emerge and, when we use careful (wholistically sensitive) clinical observation, often does.

Where do symptoms, when treated (or suppressed) allopathically, go to die? Often they do not simply disappear, they spread to different body systems where they become different symptoms; often they reemerge more distressing and debilitating than they started.

Notes: * Although the more commonly accepted spelling of this word is "holistic," I prefer "wholistic" with a "w" because, after all, we are talking about "wholes" not "holes" (or "holy").

** In medicine, an "insult" is a shock or challenge to the body, such as a physical injury or a overdose of a drug.