“Masking symptoms,” especially with medications, is often maligned because it doesn’t “aid healing” or “treat the root cause.” These are particularly common anti-medical gripes in alternative medicine — usually a setup for the claim that alt-med can “aid healing” or “treat the root cause” much more effectively than those silly doctors.
But masking symptoms is often a good idea. It should not be eschewed just because it doesn’t have true healing effect. There are extremey few real healing effects! Maybe none. Regenerative medicine remains a bit of a holy grail. There are few or no known ways to actually improve on the biological process of healing. Alas, we cannot tell the body, “Hey, heal better, will ya?”
“Healing” is mainly about removing impediments to natural recovery, such as continued overuse, excessive stress, poor fitness, or sleep deprivation. It’s not dictated by some mythical power to speed healing, but by a strong understanding of the nature of the problem and what pisses it off and retards recovery.
Here’s the most idiotically simple example of how healing is often just about protecting injury from stresses: bad sprains need to be immobilized for a while, just like a fracture. No kidding, right? It might seem “obvious,” but it was actually common practice for decades to recommend excessive early mobilization.1
Here’s a classic-but-trickier example: patellofemoral syndrome is often misdiagnosed and over-treated with strength training that tends to stress the knee even more, and yet it often works to simply avoid sitting with bent knees, because that position is much more biomechanically “intense” than most patients realize.2 Removing that sneaky knee stress isn’t “healing,” per se, but it’s sure important!
Most importantly, pain is weird,3 and somewhat self-perpetuating — particularly to the extent that it’s exacerbated by stress, fear, and anxiety. Pain medication or any other temporary symptom relief, when it works, can help to break that vicious cycle simply by demonstrating that the problem is not so bad that the pain can’t be relieved.4 Such reassurance is more than just temporary relief: it can actually change the equation. This might be how pleasant massage could have a meaningful therapeutic effect, even if it has no biological impact on healing.
The risk of re-injury
The one worthwhile concern about masking symptoms is that it can make you too cocky. Pain killers and anti-inflammatories, when they are effective, can make you feel less vulnerable than you actually are.5 And re-injury — even minor re-injury6 — can really slow down rehab. So when you decide it’s time for some symptom relief, you must exercise more cautiously.
So, focus on facilitating natural recovery, and don’t knock a little “symptom relief” along the way — but be quite cautious while medicated!
- Lamb SE, Marsh JL, Hutton JL, Nakash R, Cooke MW. Mechanical supports for acute, severe ankle sprain: a pragmatic, multicentre, randomised controlled trial. Lancet. 2009 Feb 14;373(9663):575–581. PubMed #19217992 ❐
- Pressure under the kneecap skyrockets to hundreds of kilograms per square centimetre as the knee flexes. This is normal, and the knee is built to tolerate it — but only for so long. Sitting for a living is often too much.
- Modern pain science shows that pain is an unpredictable sensation thoroughly tuned by the brain and not as closely related to tissue trouble as most people assume. So can we think pain away? Probably not, but we may be able to influence it. For more information, see Pain is Weird: Pain science reveals a volatile, misleading sensation that is often more than just a symptom, and sometimes worse than whatever started it.
- Conversely and tragically, when symptom relief fails, it can have the opposite effect — discouraging and scary! This is why the false hope offered by many bogus treatments — like acupuncture, homeopathy, or craniosacral therapy — are actually a little dangerous: when they fail, patients often think it means that their problem must be really bad. And that’s bad for pain.
- In fact, they can even do it when they aren’t effective: just the idea of symptom relief is all the excuse some people need to overdo it a little. “It’s okay, I can go a little harder and further — I’ve got some meds in me!
- Ingraham. Sports Injury Prevention Tips: A few evidence-based ways to reduce your risk of injury. ❐ PainScience.com. 2692 words.
About Paul Ingraham
I am a science writer, former massage therapist, and I was the assistant editor at ScienceBasedMedicine.org for several years. I have had my share of injuries and pain challenges as a runner and ultimate player. My wife and I live in downtown Vancouver, Canada. See my full bio and qualifications, or my blog, Writerly. You might run into me on Facebook or Twitter.