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Medical Myths: Treating Symptoms vs. Curing Diseases

Let not many of you become teachers, knowing that you shall endure a stricter judgment.”

Whether we like it or not, those who work in health care assume the role of teachers.  As such, the above quote (taken from the Bible’s book of James) seems like an apt warning we all should consider.  Although hardly anyone considers a health care professional infallible, we are nevertheless bound to a somewhat stricter standard with respect to the medical information we convey.  Not only our treatments, but also our information, must conform to the call of “first, do no harm.” 

With that in mind I feel compelled from time to time to offer certain clarifications into the popular lingo with respect to health, diseases and treatments.  As Churchill once quipped, “a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth gets a chance to put its pants on.”  This is, I believe, more true of health care information than almost any other type.  One such popular distortion of the truth typically presents itself in the following manner:

We treat the disease, not merely the symptoms


“We address the cause of the problem rather them merely the results of the problem.”

This sort of language sounds very attractive.  But more than that, it sounds like common sense.  Everyone knows that the BEST way to address any illness is obviously to fix the root cause rather than merely mask the problem with medications which do little more than make the problem more bearable.  If your car is making a funny sound, just putting earplugs in is no way to really deal with it.  Traditional medicine, however, is sometimes portrayed is just that way.  The accusation is that while “this” or “that” alternative therapy actually treats the cause, all we are doing in pharmaceutics is playing with and masking the symptoms.

But this reasoning is fundamentally flawed – and sadly seems designed to deceive those who are looking for real help and answers.  Here’s the problem:  for most chronic conditions the “cause” is either still beyond the reaches of our understanding or beyond our present ability to fix.  The “cause” they have proposed to have discovered is often no more than a theory, a guess – the result of trying to over-simplify what is usually a much more complex situation.

Take high blood pressure (hypertension) for example.  What causes it?  Some will quickly say it is caused by too much salt or obesity or stress or hormones out of “balance.”  But of course if these things were the simple cause then correcting them would always be the cure.  But many people who salt their food excessively (whatever that may mean) have perfectly fine if not low blood pressure.  Not every obese person has high blood pressure.  Many do not.  We know many factors that may contibute to hypertension, but for the vast majority of people with this disease the true cause is unknown.  And the medications we use are not intended to correct some sort of unnatural deficiency.  For example, ace-inhibitors (like lisinopril or captopril) work quite well for many people.  But such individuals do not have an “ace-inhibitor” deficiency.  We can explain in fairly extensive detail what the ace-inhibitor does, but this does not explain why the person has high blood pressure to begin with.  And even if we could discover the cause, a correction may be out of our reach.  The same thing can be said of many of our most common chronic conditions like high cholesterol, diabetes or alzheimer’s disease.

Thus, the fact is, in much of modern medicine with respect to chronic illness we are treating the “symptoms.”  Thank goodness we can!  But this is not due to an unwillingness to address the “real” cause, but rather reflects the limitations that medicine and science currently confront.  I sometimes illustrate it this way.  If a town has a crime problem – you begin by locking your doors.  You might hire more police.  You might also install an alarm system, video surveillance or even purchase a gun.  All these things may go a long way from protecting your property from theft.  Do they cure the crime problem?  Have you addressed the “real” cause? Of course not.  But they provide proven methods of protection while we address the more obscure and often difficult social issues related to criminal behavior.  Think of much of our medicines as locks on doors, security systems and police patrols.   

Granted, it sounds much more encouraging to have someone tell you they have the “cure” for your problem while everyone else is merely treating symptoms.  But such encouragement often comes with a hefty price tag.  The cost is typically the exchange of a more complex reality for a simple lie.  As someone once put it well: “For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple—and wrong.”

And for any who think I’m sold out on pharmaceuticals to treat everything and anything – you are sadly mistaken.  Those who know me know all too well my dislike of taking any medication when a “tincture of time” will do the trick.  And it matters not to me if the source of the medicine is natural or synthetic.  If it works, I’ll use it.  If I don’t need a prescription – all the better. 

To read more on this issue, I recommend an older article written by Dr. Harriet Hall entitled “The One True Cause of All Disease

Last modified: April 17, 2023