Thursday, December 17, 2009

“Hypochondria”: truth behind the pseudo-science

Physician treating a patient. Red-figure Attic...Image via Wikipedia
There are always people out there who are gifted with imagination: talking to Jesus Christ, meeting with God; or, having muscle spasm, heart irregular beating, or, difficulty of breath, etc. The former is called religious so we could freely doubt their factuality, but the latter is nothing to do with belief --- it is called “hypochondria”, “diagnosed” by physicians and psychologists and accepted by most people as a “scientific fact”.

When I first saw this word I did not pay much attention. However when I was chronic sick and could not get a descent diagnose and treatment, I started to doubt the authenticity of this term. Personally I have never been diagnosed as “hypochondria”, but if I had kept “doctor shopping”, I might have been sent to psychiatrists long time ago.

I have finished two readings recently: “Wellness, piece by piece” by Pat Sullivan; “Never be sick again” by Raymond Francis. The former is a well-known entrepreneur who was seriously ill. He was told by many doctors that his illness was created by his imagination. However, he did not buy that. Instead, out of his own effort he was eventually recovered. The author of the second book was a successful biologist who also was deadly ill. Once he was even “sentenced” to death by physicians. But just like Pat Sullivan he was cured later by using his own knowledge. Even though I do not agree with everything they said in these 2 books, I agree with them (especially Raymond Francis) with this thought: modern western medicine is not as efficient as most people believe. As matter of fact, lots of treatments do more harm than good to human bodies.

Thus my doubt to the word “hypochondria” increased. Let’s examine the definition first.

“Hypochondria is a belief that real or imagined physical symptoms are signs of a serious illness, despite medical reassurance and other evidence to the contrary.”

“Somatoform disorder, characterized by imagined sufferings of physical illness or, more generally, an exaggerated concern with one’s physical health. The hypochondriac typically displays a preoccupation with bodily functions such as heart rate, sweating, bowel and bladder functions, and the occasional minor problem like pimples, headaches, a simple cough, etc. all such trivialities are interpreted as signs of symptoms of more serious diseases. “doctor shopping” is common, assurances of health are futile.”*1
(There are many more definitions you can find online or books.)

For all these explanations, we could find two premises: 1, imagination of patients; 2, the illness patients claimed are undetectable. The first premise is at fault without any further study, because we all know that there is no way we could tell whether human’s imagination is truth or not (otherwise there would be no disputes about God’s existence). So the real premise of this definition is the second one: undetectable. That means, patients were “accused” to imagining illness ONLY because doctors could not find what’s wrong. I personally believe that only under ONE condition they can do so: modern medicine is a perfect science --- it knows human body (and mind) completely and it needs no more progress. But we all know this is not true. Human beings catch new diseases everyday and even within the existing diseases, there are still many of them are untreatable. That’s why what doctors really should do when they facing undetectable illness is: admitting the limitation of medicine, instead of “victim blame”.
In the book “Never be sick again”,Raymond Francis said:

“Physicians often assume that if they do not understand what is wrong, their ignorance is not at fault, but rather the patient is imagining the problem.”*2
“ A few suggested that I was hypochondriac, imagining ill health. Many physicians assume that if they do not understand what is wrong, the patient must be imagining his illness.” *2

Our knowledge is always (maybe forever) limited compare with the reality. That’s why modern medicine need to develop and progress. So to judge unlimited reality by using our limited knowledge and experience is truly an attitude of ignorance.

As life style changes more and more people caught many unknown diseases. Chronic fatigue syndrome is one of them. It is also one of most misunderstood and misdiagnosed diseases. Because of lots of doctors and psychologists hold modern medicine as “religion”, they truly believe that these patients has mental issues. Since these patients are treated as mental patients, they have to take wrongly prescription like anti-depressants and other drugs. Thus their already very weak immune system are completely damaged, their physical condition worsen.

An English young woman Sophia Miaza is one extreme example of this treatment. Her illness was diagnosed as mental and she dead at very young age. Here is the video:

As more and more people got CFS (Chronic fatigue syndrome), more and more CFS patients stand up for themselves, some open-minded scientists/experts started to study these unknown diseases and some new theories started challenge conventional medicine. By Raymond Francis, one of the most important reason for the failure of western medicine on so many diseases is, modern medicine takes symptoms as enemy, thus ignore the more important or the only effective fact --- causes:

Modern medicine has a poor understanding of disease and relies on suppressing the symptoms of disease rather than addressing its true cause. (see *2) 

Another limitation (if not mistake) of modern medicine is that it separates human body into parts, so it has to deal with disease separately. But the truth is human body is a holistic being, partial problems are usually related, or caused by other parts or, the whole body function. But since modern medicine study human diseases by separate them to different categories, it doubtlessly leads to some bewildering results: undetectable; unexplainable or, a more face saving “solution”: hypochondria.

…breaking medicine up into medical specialities becomes obsolete and counterproductive. (see *2)

Of course I do not mean the partial studies of modern medicine is worthless. What I believe is the study of parts should work only for partial problems, or it should only help understanding the whole. It cannot be taken as the only right pathway to deal with everything.*3

By Raymond Francis, the author of “Never be sick again”, modern medicine made disease way too complicated than what it actual is. He thinks that we human only have “one disease”, which is “cell mis-function”; only two causes: nutrition deficiency and toxicity. I personally cannot judge the scientific accuracy of this theory but I appreciate its revolutionary perspective and I believe it would be a profound impact on traditional western medicine.

Beside “imagination”, another blameful factor of undetectable diseases is “depression”. Depression causes body illness is another wild spread and accepted “scientific fact”. I actually believe there is truth about it and I do not deny our mental conditions can interfere our physical function, however, I doubt it as the only or primary cause for all baffled unknown physical diseases, as most physicians do.

"We should not confuse the fact that the vast majority of fatigue patients are depressed because of chronic illness, not chronically ill because they are depressed. This is a very important distinction and (one) that most doctors fail to draw … to treat the depression as causing the whole illness is wrong!" *4

Many emerging illnesses, before they have gained acceptance by the medical community, have initially been discounted as being hysteria, depression, somatoform disorders, etc. One hundred years ago, polio was dismissed in just that fashion.

At the end of this writing, I like to share some information about the origin of the word “hypochondria”. “Hypochondria” originally didn’t mean “disease phobia”, but an actual disease found by ancient Greeks:

The word hypochondria is derived from the ancient Greek terms hypo, which means below, and chondros, which means cartilage, and it refers to a set of symptoms which were thought to have been caused by a disorder of the anatomical organs beneath the cartilages of the ribs.

In fact, “symptom phobia” or “preoccupation with imagined illness” could be much more accurate than “hypochondria”, but I think the reason of choosing “hypochondria”, in addition to its sarcastic effect on those “superstitious Greeks”, might be because this discovery of ancient Greek did not pass the test of “modern medicine". But whether this theory passes the test of truth or not, is certainly not the concern of those who take modern medicine as “God”.

Life is short. We all want to fill our time with enjoyments. I simply didn’t believe from the beginning that so many people would spend time on endless “doctor shopping” just by imagining their illness. Labeling those people with unknown disease as “hypochondriacs” is absolutely a behavior out of arrogance of conventional western medicine. Blaming patients imagination just because of the limitation of medicine study is pseudo-science.
And needless to mention, as the consequence of this “modern superstition”, millions of patients not only suffer from physical pain, mistreatment, but also misunderstanding even disrespect from families, friends, and society.
The hope is, more and more open-minded scientists/ specialists started to put efforts into studies of these “undetectable” diseases (I saw CFS patients interviews on Dr. OZ show). And more and more patients started to take advantage of internet to stand up for themselves, to speak out, to tell people the truth behind their “imagined illness”.

As a long term CFS sufferer, I hope one day I could see the term “hypochondria” disappears from psychology dictionary. In medicine dictionary, I hope one day this word no longer stand for “symptom phobia”, but some real physical diseases that receive right diagnoses and treatments.

*1.Dictionary of psychology, by Arthur s. Reber, Penguin, 1995
*2.Never be sick again, by Raymond Francis, Health communication, Inc. 2002
*3.I have to give credit to Chinese medicine on this account, even though I do not believe it completely from scientific perspective.
*4.A that I found is that so many physically healthy people have depression. One person I known had severe anxiety but he didn’t even get insomnia.
*5.Wellness, piece by piece, Pat Sullivan, Health Press NA Inc., 2005

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  1. I agree with the distinction you're making between "hypochondria" and "undetectable." Hypochondria and mental disorder are overused terms and very dismissive of the sufferer's reality. People know what they're feeling; they don't go to doctor's to be sneered at. They go to be cured.

  2. Thanks nothingprofound! I know this is not a very easily understood issue but i appreciate those who understand it.

  3. HI
    You can find the cause of a lot of 'undetectable' ailments here
    As a brief introduction the nineteenth century argument was 'we can't see it with our eyes therefore it doesn't exist'.
    Since then the read cause of many supposedly imaginary diseases have been discovered by new inventions such as x-rays etc.
    Now the argument is 'we can't see it on x-rays therefore it doesn't exist'.
    Some people don't learn - or don't want to learn from the lessons of history

  4. nice website Anonymous! i will check it out!

  5. Your hostility towards faith mars the quality of the article. (Not that it was a tremendous help or really stands out in terms of..blogging.)

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