Original SDMB thread - Calling the Set of symptoms a syndrome doesn't equal understanding what caused them


Calling the set of symptoms a syndrome doesn't equal understanding what causes them

One annoying trend within the entire medical community is the tendency to behave as if putting a label on a set of undesirable symptoms means that you have figured out what causes them.

This is particularly true in cases where the symptoms are behavioral--e.g., alcohol abuse, temper tantrums, talking to invisible people while walking in mid-lane during rush hour, inattentiveness in class, thinking the government is broadcasting their agenda directly into your brain via lunar antennas, thinking you are the second coming of christ, etc., etc.--so the psychiatric system is spectacularly rife with it (its diagnostic category system consists of nothing else). But the problem lies not just the psychiatric system.

Furthermore, patients and the general public are major participants in this "turn the adjectives into nouns and maybe they'll go away" diagnostic magic trick, so it isn't even just the medical establishment.

Let's say I'm sneezing a lot, that I have congestion, I've been running an intermittent fever in the 101° range, my throat hurts like hell and I can hardly swallow, I've been coughing hard but unproductively, and I feel like I've been run over by a Mack truck. We could call that Upper Respiratory Syndrome, because that's shorter than reciting the list of symptoms and because that way, if you have 6 out of those 7 plus one that I don't have (bone-shaking chills, let's say), we can say it's the same thing.

But that doesn't explain why I have congestion, fever, cough, a throat that feels like someone went over it with a rat-tail file, and so forth. These things are not happening because I have Upper Respiratory Syndrome. These things are happening because a population of influenza viruses has taken up residence in my mucous membranes and the little bastards are destroying cells and releasing toxins. Upper Respiratory Syndrome is just shorthand for the symptoms. That shorthand is useful in epidemiology and elsewhere and I have no objection to its use, but an explanation it most certainly is not.

I'll even give credit where it is due: the older tendency was to slap a name on a set of symptoms that went much farther in implying that it was a disease that we comprehended. Long before we knew about the influenze virus, we had the word "influenza" to describe the symptoms, and the origin of that term was a mistaken belief that the sufferer had come under the "influence" of evil stars. Better to use terms that are more honest about our ignorance of the underlying cause, words like "syndrome" or "pattern" or "constellation". But that advantage is lost if everyone subsequently treats the naming of the phenomenon as equivalent to understanding it anyway.

(There's also the reverse situation where we succeed in isolating the cause of a medical phenomenon we've described as a syndrome, and then continue to use the "syndrome" name -- AIDS for instance).

Anyway, to wrap up: ·

PS -- I'm over the flu I just used it anyway 'cuz I needed an example.

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