Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Treating the Symptoms

By Peter Bowditch

Practitioners of alternative medicine claim that conventional medicine treats only the symptoms and not the underlying cause – which ironically is what homeopathy’s founder first advocated.

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.

I must be told on a weekly basis that real doctors treat only symptoms while alternative, holistic medicine men 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 that 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 (e.g. antipyretics for the fever associated with colds and flu) or to reduce distress (e.g. 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 that 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 treatment of symptoms 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...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.

Peter Bowditch is Immediate Past President of Australian Skeptics Inc. (