The Benefits and Risks of Self-Diagnosing Health Conditions and Self-Prescribing Treatments

With wide access to all sorts of health and medical information and products these days, many of us are using this information and our access to the proliferation of easy-to-get health care products and internet website advice to be better informed, but also to self-diagnose, self-prescribe and self-treat. Some of this access contributes to informed decision-making and availability of helpful products, and this can often be a good thing for many.

Obsolete are the times in which the physician or health care practitioner was given, or acted with, God-like authority, and was the sole keeper of all important medical knowledge. The uninformed patient followed the advice of the practitioner, without question, and often as a consequence, never took any active part in their own health or understood their own role in a healing process, which we now know is an important aspect in maintaining one’s health. The previous model was one in which one deferred that responsibility to the medical “experts.”

Many health seekers in our contemporary culture now want to be informed and more personally involved in their health care. This is an important evolution in assuming personal responsibility for all the elements of ones own well being, yet an approach that can have some limitations and pitfalls.

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Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) often uses the analogy of a tree when explaining the dynamics of health issues; there is the concept of both a root and a branch of a particular symptom or illness. While this can be an oversimplification, the root is the true source pattern of the issue, while the branch can be simply the symptom of how the imbalanced pattern manifests in the body, mind or spirit. For example, a headache would be considered a branch symptom, while the root could be from any number of differing causative factors or imbalances. It is not wholly or always incorrect to think of treating the branch of an issue, and sometimes that is warranted as the first or truest option; but what if the source of one’s “headache” could be attributed to multiple factors that were different for each person? Any one or more of many of these familiar “roots” could be the true origin of the headache: stress and muscular tension in the neck and shoulders; lack of quality sleep for a long period of time; heavy metal toxicity or drug/medication reactions; menstrual cycle imbalances; too much sun exposure; hypertension; photophobia (a hypersensitivity to light); or dehydration, and of course other causes.

Chinese Medicine uses different concepts and language to describe these various root dynamics, and the method of treatment for each root condition would also differ accordingly. But what if one were to seek to self treat all “headaches” in one singular branch manner, regardless of the point of view being TCM, another Alternative/Integrative Medicine or Western Medical approach, or with an internet search recommendation?

We are often asked by patients in the clinic: “Can you give me something for my insomnia?” “Can you help treat this cough I’ve had for weeks?” “I’ve had hypertension now for years, can acupuncture and herbs help?” The answer to all of these is certainly, yes, but there is more to it than looking at the branch complaint – the insomnia, the cough, the hypertension. It’s not enough to treat the catchword named symptom, as there are many sets of possible imbalances or pathologies possible in each of the above branch issues. I suggest it’s up to the trained health care practitioner to help discern and treat these deeper root patterns to facilitate a better healing result, and not mask any issues or send the root patterns of the imbalance elsewhere in the body/mind/spirit of the client.

In a certain way, in our progressing, contemporary holistic healthcare approaches and understanding, we are still operating to self diagnose and self prescribe based on the old branch only model. A good portion of the health care information and product out there reinforces the approach of treating the catchword diagnosis or symptom. Healthcare products and treatment solutions are often marketed or presented to the consumer using this name-the-branch method; and while the intention or integrity of such information or product might be sound, the uninformed use of such approaches or products could be problematic, or at the least, inadequate.

Traditional Chinese Medicine, and acupuncture as well, share the point of view that it is more often insufficient to treat the branch, and in solely doing so, this would be to mask or send the dysfunctional pattern of the root causes elsewhere in the body, possibly resulting in more, deeper problems or different health manifestations.

To rely solely upon whatever name-the-branch information or product is out there in the online or other trendy media resource for self-diagnosis and treatment presents risk and requires careful consideration. This is why it remains important for a collaborative care model between patient and a trusted practitioner; the health-seeking patient brings in as much input as they care to explore about themselves; the practitioner brings the training, product knowledge and holistic perspective to each unique patient centered treatment. Such sharing of knowledge about one’s illness, health imbalances and available product and treatments is relevant to each individual, as we are all profoundly unique in our make up and our responses to treatments. In this way we can realize optimum care that is very personal, and helps result in a correctly informed, focused and successful treatment outcome. In each unique healing process, usually one size does not fit all.

Bruce Gustafson, MTOM, L.Ac.