The Medicalization of Mundane Experience: The “Syndrome” Syndrome

My fingers hurt after I’ve been typing all day; I get cranky and bloated once a month before I get my period; and every time I eat Chinese food I have chest pains from the MSG I consumed. Uncomfortable yes; tragic, probably not. Some sensations are, of course, worse: after radiation therapy I vomit; sometimes I have pain and muscle weakness in my shoulder.

At least to me, these symptoms don’t sound as bad or irreversible as they do once they are called syndromes. There are actually 97 named syndromes. As a culture, I think we have the syndrome syndrome—the naming of sensations. This kind of naming has a hidden downside in that it actually may cause ill health.

There are syndromes that have been categorized and those that haven’t. For example, there are those syndromes that stem from environmental causes like Acute Radiation Syndrome that results from radiation exposure and leads to vomiting, bloody diarrhea, exhaustion and Chinese Restaurant Syndrome that is a reaction to MSG and leads to chest pain and a burning sensation. There are cardiovascular syndromes like Shoulder-Hand Syndrome which results from Myocardial Infarction leading to Pain in the shoulder and swelling in hand. There are endocrine syndromes like Premenstrual Syndrome that results is Abnormal sensation in the breasts, abdominal pain, thirst, headache, pelvic congestion, nervous irritability. There are neurological syndromes like Carpal-Tunnel Syndrome which is a compression of the median nerve through the carpal tunnel that leads to pain and parasthesia.

And there are syndromes that are uncategorized, like Munchausen Syndrome: which is malingering—where people make up a clinically convincing disease. There is even, Munchausen syndrome by proxy where a person deliberately causes injury or illness to another person (most often his child) usually to gain attention or some other benefit.

What all of these and the remaining ninety not mentioned have in common is that people who are given these diagnoses probably feel some relief in knowing that their discomfort is “real.” (Of course, it’s real. Why should we think psychological discomfort is any less real than physical discomfort?) The problem is that once symptoms are given a name they run the risk of becoming more permanent than they might otherwise have to be.

Labels lead to expectations and expectations tend to be fulfilled. Surely there are instances when there are no symptoms, but these times are easily overlooked, making the diagnosis seem that much more accurate.

When we expect to have symptoms, we over assimilate our experience to those expectations. Very minor stomach discomfort, for example, is seen as PMS, even though on a particular occasion is could have resulted from overeating.

More important, when we expect symptoms now that we know we have a legitimate medical condition, we may be less likely to take steps to self heal. After all, one may think, if it can be self healed it wouldn’t be a medical condition in the first place.

These syndromes are evidence of the medicalization of mundane experience. Sensations fluctuate. Sometimes they are there and sometimes not; sometimes their felt effects are great and sometimes not. By naming them we tend to hold them still and overlook all of this variability. If we mindfully attended to the changes we would at least stand a chance of healing them ourselves. For example, if I have carpal tunnel syndrome I will not experience the same degree of pain every time I work at the computer. If I notice the changes in my experience—some times it hurts more and sometimes it hurts less—I may think to ask why this is so. Once I ask the question I can start testing my hypothesis. Perhaps when I’m writing something required I’m tense when at the computer while writing to friends does not result in any discomfort. If this were the case, then I should try to figure out how to make the assignment less stressful resulting in diminished symptoms and the end of the syndrome.

Nothing stays the same so no matter what the syndrome or disease, we can gain control in this way by mindfully attending to the variability and then questioning why the change. If everything becomes a syndrome, we give up this control over our health. The cure, then, for the Syndrome Syndrome is to become mindful.

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