What’s better than treating the symptoms?

When is it wrong to continue?

What’s better than treating the symptoms?


here comes a time when if you want to truly get better (stay better) you have to stop treating the symptom. Like constantly inflating a flat tyre, it is a vain attempt to treat the problem, that will ultimately fail. The puncture itself must be fixed, not the lack of air that is seen as the symptom.

The chances are by now you’ve tried chasing your symptoms away with pain killers, but unless you can pin-point the real cause of the pain, the damage to your body will continue. We are humble enough to believe that the body we live in today, with its millions of years of evolution, has something relevant and vitally important to say when you experience pain. Its not saying “I’m an over sensitive stupid machine”, “I’m just unlucky to have pain” or “I’m deficient in pain killers, feed me some”. With millions of years of evolutionary tweaking, the human body is the most intelligent machine we know. Pain is merely the messenger: It hurts so that we will pay attention to change the situation before damage occurs! Chemically silencing the pain does not erase the cause.

Sadly, we are led to believe by many of today’s health care professionals, that the pain is the problem, and that is what needs treatment. Now that’s not to say sometimes we don’t all need a crutch to rest an injury or that drugs wouldn’t help us get a good nights sleep when we are exhausted with pain, but there comes a time when if we are to truly get better we need to throw away the crutches and walk for ourselves, or we will never live life to the same extent again.

We aim where possible to treat causes not symptoms. We can only do that because of our diagnosis.

If your back ‘goes’ doing something simple like dressing yourself and we only diagnose a sprained joint, whilst temporarily this diagnosis is of use in the management of pain, we miss the cause. The back after all had no sprain moments before injury yet clearly something was wrong before you dressed otherwise why did the injury occur if nothing was wrong? Everything happens for a reason and we are always striving to find the reason behind why the back was vulnerable to such simple mechanics as dressing oneself. Clues to such vulnerability or weaknesses can be found by deconstructing the pull patterns of all the necessary stabilising muscles and observing how they act under proprioceptive changes or challenges undertaken by the patient. This is most easily accomplished in the treatment room by challenging muscle strength and coordination whilst changing the patients proprioception.

Finding The Real Cause

Some of you will have sought advice and treatment from chiropractors, osteopaths and physiotherapists, who have said ‘you have stiff joints’, or ‘its your posture’ or ‘you have weak core muscles so you’re vulnerable to injury’. Yes, these are all perfectly good reasons for pain and if treated will stop pain, after all I spend most of my working life treating these problems, but even they can be symptoms of something else. Unless the practitioner treats the real reason as well, you will need to keep returning for more and more treatment to prevent your pain. Sound familiar?

Here’s an example:

Say you have a small, unknown to you, stone in your shoe, after some weeks walking in the shoes, you don’t know why but your foot starts to become increasingly painful and you start to limp a little. You go to a Doctor with symptoms of foot pain who says you have inflammatory pain in your foot from walking too much and to treat your symptoms tells you to take pain killers and walk less. This works a little, but you still limp and the limp starts to cause you to experience knee and back pain, as your body intelligently shifts the weight from your foot to the other side. Having thought you were treating your foot pain as best you could, you decide to also seek help for the knee and back pain. You feel unlucky, and ask yourself “why me, why do I have all these injuries and why for seemingly no apparent reason?”. You then get sent round the houses to many back and knee specialists who tell you that your joints are wearing out and to take stronger pain killers and to keep them strong as its too early for an operation or further tests. They in turn send you to specialists who tell you to stretch your tight leg and back muscles and strengthen the weak ones, this again helps a little but you still suffer pain, and you have to keep doing the exercises to keep yourself from getting worse. As time passes your joints literally start to wear out and expensive tests are carried out such as x-rays and MRI scans and you end up being told you’re just one of the unlucky people with arthritis and all too soon you end up at the Pain Clinic. You start to become depressed so your doctor prescribes you anti-depresssants. Your health does not increase from the anti inflammatory and anti depressants drugs. Finally, you find an expert who listens and takes responsibility for all your symptoms, in doing so they discover the foot pain was the start of all your problems and sends you to a surgeon who operates on the arthritic joints around where the stone rubs in your shoe. Your pains stop getting worse as you have structurally changed your foot’s compromise with the stone, but your foot, knee and back will never be the same again. You think thank the lord for drugs and surgery otherwise your path would have had no relief and no structural solution.

Okay, so you’re screaming ‘Stupid example! Why didn’t you take the stone out to begin with!’, well by design this was an example of a simple cause, taken to an extreme to prove a point. In the clinical world sometimes the ‘stones’ are harder to find. At Active Health we use Proprioceptive Medicine as an extra tool in our ‘kit bag’ to help us pin-point where muscle imbalance is coming from. Muscle imbalance is the source of movement and stability problems in the absence of trauma. Muscle balance in controlled by proprioception. By treating the problem area to normalize proprioception, the clinical picture simplifies as your body’s compensations are no longer needed. These compensations sometimes will have been around for many years and maybe calcitrant problems in their own right that do need individual treatment, for example, knee arthritis from a foot injury many years ago.

Don’t get me wrong, in the above example its not too late for help. Having taken out the stone I would love to break down your scar tissue in the damaged and connecting areas so that the foot stops hurting and you stop limping. I’d enjoy manipulating the stiff joints in your spine so you could regain some flexibility, I’d advise you on what to eat and what not to, so that with a package of care you can help rejuvenate your arthritic joints as best you could. I may even have to take x-rays to see what types of treatment would help you the most and to see if it was responsible to refer you to someone else who like a surgeon who could clear up some of the degenerative structure that is now a problem in its own right. Of course we would design a bespoke exercise plan with our experienced personal trainer or myself or the physiotherapist who would workshop your core in the gym and strengthen those muscles you had switched off due to the pain for so long. Strengthening you so that you are no longer vulnerable to injury. If necessary I’d even visit your place of work to address any postural/ergonomic issues that was hindering your recovery. But the bit I take the most pleasure in is finding the stone in the first place. To me this means we can stop the rot. It means, on some occasions, I may have just potentially put your body on a different course for the rest of your life, that makes me feel great. Being able to steer you away from continuing down a road of symptom blocking and helping you address the cause feels great for both patient and practitioner.

To do this, in addition to other tools, I use proprioceptive medicine as a tool to help me diagnose the root cause of faulty movements. Then once identified, we can work together using the most appropriate services.

Learn more about Proprioceptive Medicine

About the Author

Robin is the editor of theactivehealthclinic.com and is the principle Chiropractor of Active Health Chiropractic and Physiotherapy in Bath. Visit Robin’s team page to learn more.


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