The Role of Palliative Treatment in Natural Medicine

If my symptoms are gone, doesn’t that mean I’m healthy? How long will it take me to heal? Am I doing all I can to support my healing process?

Mother and ChildMost of us seek medical care because we want to feel better. When disease blocks us from living our busy lives fully, it’s tempting to focus on eliminating our symptoms so we can go back to business as usual.

However, the absence of symptoms does not mean the disease process or imbalance has been corrected. Though there are times it is important to give some palliative treatments to improve symptoms, there should be treatments that also address the underlying cause so that the compromised system can heal.

A cure is achieved “only when the whole person was treated, and not just the disease or its symptoms,” say naturopathic doctors Joseph Pizzorno and Michael Murray, authors of the Textbook of Natural Medicine. “Palliation and suppression never lead to cure in and of themselves.”

Palliative treatment refers to therapies that make us feel better but fail to treat the cause of disease. Taking Tylenol to lower a fever may take away our chills and body aches, for example, but it doesn’t cure the infection. In fact, it can actually prolong the illness by undermining the body’s attempt to create an inhospitable environment for the bacteria or virus.

Of course, an acute infection will often resolve on its own, eventually. But what about chronic conditions that keep reoccurring? Individuals with chronic pain from arthritis who palliate their symptoms with painkillers may find relief, but unless they make lifestyle changes to address the underlying cause—whether it’s excessive use, strain on the joints or a buildup of toxins in the system—the condition will most likely continue to worsen.

Chronic illness requires support for the affected systems before balance and wellness can be restored. That’s why our Portland natural medicine practitioners focus on treatments that address the underlying imbalance, creating optimal conditions for the body to heal.

Limitations of palliative care

Water and RocksSymptoms are the body’s way of telling you that something isn’t right—that there’s an imbalance that needs to be addressed. But just because you feel better doesn’t mean the disease process has been corrected.

The body has an incredible ability to compensate for disease. Take diabetes, for example. One in four people are diabetic and don’t know it, according to the Centers for Disease Control. That’s because the elevation in blood sugar doesn’t necessarily present symptoms. In fact, some people discover the problem only after they’ve suffered a severe complication such as nerve damage, kidney failure or blindness.

When we palliate the symptoms of disease, we run the risk of suppressing the symptoms and driving the underlying imbalance deeper, which leads to the development of chronic disease. Eczema, for example, is a relatively benign condition of the skin commonly treated with topical hydrocortisone, which relieves itching but doesn’t correct the causal imbalance in the immune system. As the skin becomes damaged, it secretes a substance that triggers the development of asthma. A benign condition has now progressed to a potentially life-threatening one.

Palliative care can be a short-term solution. Over time, many medications can cause harmful side effects that damage the body’s ability to function. Chronic use of pain medications can affect liver and stomach function or degrade connective tissue, for instance. The potential for side effects is one of the reasons patients often seek natural medical care. Naturopaths try to avoid these types of palliative treatments whenever possible and, when necessary, limit their use to a matter of weeks.

When palliative treatment is important

WildflowerTreating and resolving the cause of disease naturally often takes months or even years. After all, it’s taken a lifetime to develop your condition—if not longer. We’re now learning through epigenetics that disease processes may start even before we’re conceived. Predisposition for some diseases can begin as far back as when our mothers were in the womb and the egg that became us was created.

But what if you can’t wait that long? Sometimes palliation is needed. A mother with chronic migraines, for example, may be missing too much work or unable to care for her children. Her first priority is to treat the pain so she can get back to work and carry out her daily responsibilities. Taking pain medications can help her cope with the migraines in the short term while she works to address the cause.

Physicians at our Portland naturopathic clinic are trained to know when palliative care is needed, but we don’t stop there. We also seek to prevent the long-term use of palliative measures by rooting out the causative agent responsible for the migraines. Anytime we use palliation, it is essential that we simultaneously address the cause. Anything less “is not worthy of the name of ‘cure,’ ” says Dr. Henry Lindlahr, author of Philosophy of Natural Therapeutics.

Just as plants need water and sunlight to grow, our bodies need good food, movement, fresh air, sunshine, sleep, and love to be healthy. By working with a natural health doctor, our Portland patients can learn to give their health the continuous nourishing it requires.

If your current treatment focuses on palliative therapies and you’re ready to take your health care to the next level, schedule an appointment with one of our highly skilled naturopathic physicians. With the power of natural medicine and the motivation to make consistent lifestyle changes, you can begin your journey toward wellness.