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I must be told on a weekly basis that real doctors treat only symptoms, unlike alternative, holistic medicine men who treat the underlying causes of disease and therefore provide cures. (Strangely, I have also been told that there can be no disease or illness in the absence of symptoms, and when I mention four occasionally asymptomatic medical conditions that are close to me (type 2 diabetes, multiple myeloma, basal cell carcinoma and melanoma) I usually get a response which consists of a pause followed by a repetition of the "fact" that symptoms tell the story.)
In the real world we know that doctors do address the underlying cause of medical conditions and only treat symptoms in the case of self-limiting complaints (antipyretics for the fever associated with colds and flu, ...) or to reduce distress (painkillers, salves and creams for rashes, ...). Treating the symptoms is just the first step before getting on with the real job of fixing the problem.
The form of quackery which is usually offered as the best example of treating the underlying condition rather than just the symptoms is homeopathy. When it is pointed out that symptom treatment is all that there is to homeopathy believers divert to rants about memory of water and Brian Josephson's Nobel Prize (for Physics in 1973, and I don't know what "theoretical predictions of the properties of a supercurrent through a tunnel barrier" have to do with medicine) and how the word "allopath" means real, bad doctor. They do not like it being pointed out that according to the inventor of the term "allopath" it means people who practise medicine according to the theory of four humours and, coincidentally, everyone who is not a homeopath. Do chiropractors, acupuncturists and naturopaths include themselves in the set of "allopaths"? They should. Here is what Samuel Hahnemann, the inventor of both the term "allopath" and the "science" of homeopathy had to say:
Medicine as commonly practised (allopathy) knows no treatment except to draw from diseases the injurious materials which are assumed to be their cause. The blood of the patient is made to flow mercilessly by bleedings, leeches, cuppings, scarifications, to diminish an assumed plethora which never exists as in well women a few days before their menses, an accumulation of blood the loss of which is of no appreciable consequence, while the loss of blood with merely assumed plethora destroys life. Medicine as commonly practised seeks to evacuate the contents of the stomach and sweep the intestines clear bf the materials assumed to originate diseases.
So the inventor of homeopathy was against purging, cupping and other such practices (all long abandoned by real medicine) but this was because he held the philosophical position that nothing should be done to treat any underlying condition. Here is what you see on the first page of Hahnemann's masterpiece, The Organon of Medical Arts (and not just anywhere on the first page - it is the in first two paragraphs):
The physician's high and only mission is to restore the sick to health, to cure, as it is termed.
His mission is not, however, to construct so-called systems, by interweaving empty speculations and hypotheses concerning the internal essential nature of the vital processes and the mode in which diseases originate in the interior of the organism, (whereon so many physicians have hitherto ambitiously wasted their talents and their time); nor is it to attempt to give countless explanations regarding the phenomena in diseases and their proximate cause (which must ever remain concealed), wrapped in unintelligible words and an inflated abstract mode of expression, which should sound very learned in order to astonish the ignorant - whilst sick humanity sighs in vain for aid. Of such learned reveries (to which the name of theoretic medicine is given, and for which special professorships are instituted) we have had quite enough, and it is now high time that all who call themselves physicians should at length cease to deceive suffering mankind with mere talk, and begin now, instead, for once to act, that is, really to help and to cure.
So according to the inventor of homeopathy, no attempt should ever be made to do anything about any disease other than to treat the symptoms. Remember that the next time someone says that real doctors only treat symptoms. And remember that when someone calls real doctors "allopaths" in order to denigrate them that the only people practising allopathy today are the ones doing cupping, colonic irrigation, detoxification and other standards of the art of quackery.
And of course I have been told that Hahnemann's book has been suppressed by the Rockefeller medical cartel. That must be why I was able to read it on several places on the Internet and buy a copy from Amazon.
This article was published as the Naked Skeptic column in the April 2011 edition of Australasian Science