SYMPTOMS Signs and Symbolism in Medical Discourse
Whether it is regarded as disease or illness, whether it occurs in a society practicing biomedicine or a culture practicing indigenous medicine, sickness is universal. Diseases and illnesses of all types plague each and every society throughout the world. Central to the idea of sickness is the diagnostic element of the symptom. Although many cultures have unique ideologies regarding sickness, healing, and efficacy, these cultures use the symptom as the primary instrument to maintain their culturally constructed idea of health. Regardless of the healing system or society, globally, people tend to use the symptom as a tool to ...view middle of the document...
Definition and Importance of the Symptom
Due to the intricacy of the symptom, it is difficult to construct a simple definition. Illness symptoms are “differently labeled by individuals in dissimilar social situations” (Browner 1983: 494). Certain etiologies such as those found in biomedicine maintain that disease occurs when an external pathogen enters the body and disrupts physiological homeostasis. Therefore, symptoms are not believed to be part of the “patient’s concept of his intact body” (Casell 1976: 145). In this rite, symptoms are viewed as the manifestation of bodily malfunction. On the other hand, non-western ideologies explain disease causation as an object intrusion, spirit intrusion, an act of witchcraft, or the result of soul loss or neglected/transgressed social taboos (Low 1985). Therefore, in non-traditional health care systems, symptoms are believed to be manifestations of the intrusion of the supernatural. Although it may seem logical that different civilizations with diverse illness ideologies would have different definitions for symptoms, certain commonalities regarding the definition of symptoms exist among these civilizations. For instance, most cultures do support the belief that symptoms are the manifestation of illness, whether it is the cause of a pathogen or a spirit invasion. Therefore, the symptom enables a person to report self-experiences of health on a day-to-day basis. These self-reported experiences can be used to “establish relationships between physical symptoms, psychological factors, and health actions” (Brown et al. 1994: 378).
Having a clear definition of the symptom is imperative, but just as vital is having an understanding of why symptoms are important. The symptom is of great significance because “everywhere, sickness and healing are primal human concerns” (Telles and Pollack 1995: 1). The concept of feelings, in the form of symptoms, also becomes important because they often act as threads that bind the aspect of health to the personal concept of human emotion. In this rite, feelings are important in the definition of health and illness. The way an individual feels is a “prime criterion of health, illness, and recovery” (Telles and Pollack 1981: 243).
The symptom is of great social significance in the way it “reflects both the individual’s relations in the social system and represents cultural participation; it is a help-seeking behavior of individuals or families attempting to re-establish a balanced sociocultural state” (Low 1985: 190). These statements are important because they shed light on the social and cultural component of the symptom.
While the personal significance of the symptom is important, the vitality of the symptom extends beyond personal emotions and cultural boarders. Symptoms function as a linguistic bridge that strengthens not only communication and understanding between the patient and the...