Examining Alternative Medicine

To be well is not the same as to feel well.

Being well requires some sense of invincibility. No one is spared symptoms for long.

It's abnormal to go one year without upper respiratory symptoms or pain.

Lurking in our future are heartache and heartburn, shoulder and knee pain, headache, rashes and skipped heartbeats -- not to mention bothersome fatigue, sore muscles, bowel irregularity, insomnia and so much else to challenge our sense of well-being.

Nearly all of these predicaments can go away as mysteriously as they come about. To be well requires the wherewithal to cope with these ailments for as long as that takes -- and it can take weeks.

If you experience crushing chest pain or excruciating headache, if you have a fever and are coughing up green sputum, if you start vomiting blood, common sense and your caring community demand that you seek the attention of a member of my guild, the guild of physicians and surgeons. No other course is reasonable.

These are not ordinary predicaments of life -- they are extraordinary. Only my guild can respond in the affirmative if you ask whether you are clearly more likely to be aided by our ministrations than not.

Most symptoms are not so extraordinary. We have options to consider. In the last decade, epidemiologists have ventured into the community to study how we cope with these predicaments of life. Most of us, most of the time, cope on our own.

"On our own" does not denote a vacuum; we are bombarded by advice and advised ceaselessly to avail ourselves of all kinds of unctions and potions and widgets. Rare is the person who does not succumb; American medicine cabinets bear witness.

All this "help" is a cultural phenomenon fostered by legions of purveyors, a cultural phenomenon with roots in antiquity and with inventiveness across time and cultures that boggles the mind.

It's a waste of money to participate -- unless you like the taste (chicken soup, fish and garlic are examples) or the feel (massage, meditation, and girding your loins are examples) -- and a waste of breath to decry it.

For most of us, most of the time, our symptoms improve no matter what we do. When the particular symptom recurs, we are likely to cope as we did the last time, convinced that what we did or what we took or what we avoided was the reason we got better. So be it.

For some of us, some of the time, coping on our own seems inadequate. In all likelihood, we are not overwhelmed by the intensity of the symptoms. Rather, something else in our lives is compromising our ability to cope, something adverse in our lives at home or at work, something financial or interpersonal that renders the symptom the "last straw."

Are many of us destined to seek out someone who offers to fix, heal or cure the "last straw" and ignore all else that is making it so hard for us to cope?

The Language of Modern Medicine

We all need to get beyond the traditional complaint of "what's wrong with me, Doc, that I have this symptom?" and move on to more rational discourse, such as "is there any important disease that is causing my symptom? If so, can it be treated? If not, can we discern why I can't cope with this episode?"

For nearly all the predicaments of life we're discussing, a medical doctor can determine quickly if a terrible disease is lurking, often just by taking a history and doing a physical examination, and occasionally some simple testing.

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