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Respecting Symptoms

by Leon Chaitow, ND DO(more info)

listed in bodywork, originally published in issue 17 - January 1997

I suppose all complementary health care disciplines and systems agree that the body/mind complex is self-healing. That given the opportunity the self-regulating mechanisms will act in the best interests of the individual, always attempting to move towards the normalising of whatever is currently ‘wrong’. That these self-healing potentials are not always successful is obvious but this does not negate the fact that health is the body’s priority.

A descent into illness, or failure to fully recover from it, might simply indicate that the burden of negative factors (including allergens, toxins, infectious agents, stressors of other sorts) is overwhelming the defensive systems (immune function, eliminative and restorative functions etc).

Or it might be because the degree of susceptibility, vulnerability, of the individual is just too great – for a host of possible reasons including genetic and acquired predispositions, weaknesses and imbalances (emotional, biochemical, structural, spiritual etc).

When a patient/client enters our office for help we see someone who is probably going to get well whatever we do, as long as we don’t actually prevent this, or make matters worse via our interventions. Their homeostatic self-healing mechanism is working away, night and day, to achieve normality or at least to achieve a reasonable adaptation to the stressors affecting them.

When the homeostatic potentials of the body are not able to achieve more than a compromise adaptation, the individual will display symptoms which can usually help to guide us towards therapeutic interventions which will either enhance defence mechanisms or reduce the load they are handling.

Understanding what the picture really means, making sense of signs and the person’s history – is what evaluation, assessment, diagnosis is all about. Symptoms being the outward manifestations of internal adaptations, physical or mental.

Sometimes symptoms can show us that the way in which someone has adapted is the very best that they can currently do, and hint at the possibility that perhaps interventions which aim to change the situation could be undesirable.

Let me give some physical examples.

Someone eats contaminated food and develops an acute food-poisoning reaction involving diarrhoea and vomiting. Should these unpleasant symptoms be stopped by medication?

Clearly not – since unless the toxic material is voided from the body death could ensue. The symptoms represent the body’s attempt to normalise itself. This is not to say that nothing should be done – electrolyte balance, fluid levels etc need to be monitored and other actions taken to ensure that life is not in danger . . . but the point of this example is to highlight the need to know what symptoms actually indicate and to know whether to leave them alone, support them or suppress them.

In a simple non-life-threatening infection – a fever associated with malaise, headache and other symptoms a battle between immune forces and invading organism is underway. Should this be stopped? Clearly not – unless life is at risk.

Use of compresses and massage could assist in making life more comfortable without interfering in the battle represented by elevated temperature – which in time will resolve as the battle is won.

Hundreds of similar examples could be given but these simple ones highlight the message I am trying to illustrate, that many ‘mento-emotional’ symptoms – often with physical/somatic manifestations – are also examples of the body-mind complex doing the best it can under conditions which make particular demands which cannot be resolved or dealt with in any other way – by a particular individual under particular circumstances.

Example – someone with acute or chronic symptoms – let us say involving regular headaches [their most pressing reason for consulting you] plus non-specific muscular pains, intermittently severe fatigue, periodic panic attacks, sleep disturbance and irritable bowel problems. On examination you might decide that these symptoms derive from the way the person is coping with a combination of factors – life demands, relationship problems, appalling home conditions, workplace and/or economic stresses, bereavement, and/or other stress factors – possibly overlaid on a background of childhood abuse and profound lifelong poor self-image – coupled with poor nutrition, toxicity, previous or current infections, postural imbalances, poor respiratory function, excessive muscular tension etc.

Should you advise a modification of diet, taking of suitable herbal and nutritional supplements, exercise and relaxation regimes and/or other treatment and self-help approaches?

Or might such an approach actually make things worse – demanding a whole new set of adaptations of an already severely overstretched and compromised system?

Or should this patient be treated symptomatically – to relieve the headaches – their most pressing symptom?

Or might it be that these symptoms represent the best adaptation currently available to the person so that apart from non- specific relaxation oriented methods, together with compassionate psychotherapy/counselling via which self-awareness might develop – nothing much else should be offered?

There are other therapeutic choices and your belief system will dictate what you think these should be.

But consider the possibility that this individual (and in an inner city practice I see many such patients almost every week) consults a bodyworker, possibly for massage or aromatherapy. What if during the work the therapist focuses on producing an emotional release, in which the patient cries, laughs, and produces verbal and emotional outbursts. Would this be beneficial?

It could be – but it could also be catastrophic – if the thoughts, memories, images which flood into the patient’s consciousness are not able to be handled, reflected on, processed and understood.

Unless such a therapist is trained in counselling and psychotherapy, especially if the release of emotions is not spontaneous but is ‘forced’ by the therapist, this could be a disastrous event.

Solutions – I have no obvious ones – just lots of questions and a desire to urge caution before anyone not suitably trained is tempted into interfering with processes even well qualified individuals only barely understand.

Sometimes a patient’s symptoms may be all that is holding them together and we need to avoid provoking fragmentation.


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About Leon Chaitow, ND DO

Leon Chaitow ND DO - December 7, 1937 — September 20, 2018 was a registered Osteopath and Naturopath and an Honorary Fellow at the University of Westminster. He has been author of over 70 books, edited the peer reviewed Journal of Bodywork & Movement Therapies, and practised in a NHS Health Centre and privately. He taught widely to Physiotherapists, Osteopaths, Chiropractors and Massage Therapists. Further information about Leon who sadly died 20 September 2018 is available via his website:


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