Addressing the System, Not the Symptoms

The human body is made up of multiple complex systems that work together to achieve one goal – to sustain life. 


Addressing the System, Not the Symptoms
by Michael Dugan
Aug. 22, 2022

Does your body give you signs that things aren’t right? Symptoms are your body’s way of alerting you to deeper problems.

Symptoms come in many forms including physical pain, cold sweats, rapid heartbeat, headaches, intestinal bloating or cramping, and a very long list of others. When you view it in a broad sense, a symptom is an effect of something else. This broad definition is important to consider as we discuss the impact of addressing symptoms vs addressing the system from which the symptoms arise.

Have you ever taken a medication or engaged in a certain protocol just to address a specific symptom that was uncomfortable in the moment? Examples of this could be taking an anti-inflammatory for a headache or performing a stretch to alleviate lower back tightness.

At some point, you’ve likely considered that your symptoms have deeper causes that need to be taken care of. Maybe you’re already aware that symptoms often have a deeper root-cause that needs to be addressed for long-term relief.

In this article, we’re going to discuss a frame of mind to help address the cause of your symptoms so that you don’t have to keep having the same uncomfortable experiences again and again.

 

Systems Vs. Symptoms

Before we get into the discussion, it is helpful to first define the two terms we will be discussing:

A symptom is something that indicates the existence of something else (S).

  • A symptom is an occurrence caused by something else. By definition, a symptom cannot occur within a vacuum. Your headache is not the problem itself, it is a sign of the problem (dehydration, muscle tension, caffeine withdrawal, etc.). Your joint pain did not occur without cause, it occurred because something provoked it (excessive exercise, impact injury, arthritis, etc.). This means that if you truly want to resolve a symptom, you must look into the cause and the system error that occurred in order for the symptom to manifest. Not only that, but you must support the entire system for sustainable resolution of the problem.


A system is a group of interacting bodies under the influence of related forces (S).

  • In a way, a symptom assumes the existence of a system. A symptom can only exist within a system as it is a sign of malfunction within the system itself. An error occurs within the system, the system produces an irregular response, we notice these irregular responses and identify them as symptoms.

Through this lens, we are going to discuss the value in taking a systems approach to solving problems within the human body.

 

The Body is a System

The human body is made up of multiple complex systems that work together to achieve one goal – to sustain life. 

Within the goal to sustain life is multiple sub-goals such as seeking out nourishment, healing damaged tissues, fighting microbial threats, preventing unwanted behaviors through the signaling of pain, and many others. 

When there is something negatively impacting the body on a systems level, then symptoms manifest.

For example, when the body undergoes an infection, a microbe enters the body and exerts a number of effects that interfere with normal body processes. Just one of the end results of this infection could be a cough. While having a cough is not desirable, it is not the problem itself. The cough is a symptom of an event that occurred in the system.

If we can support the immune system to fight the microbe and stop its effects, then the symptoms will likely resolve.

Alternatively, if a cough drop is used to address the cough, then the cough may still be resolved however - the underlying infection may persist.

In this instance, if we are to truly address the problem (the infection), we must look behind the symptom (the cough) for what went wrong in the system. By addressing what went wrong within the system, you strengthen the system itself and the symptom often resolves as a byproduct.

Additionally, by learning to address the system, you can prevent future occurrences of the same problem. This is because measures can be taken to strengthen the system preemptively.   

On the contrary, if you address the symptom only, then you will be less likely to achieve a resolution of the underlying problem in the system.

Notice that the path works much more efficiently in one direction over the other. Improve the system, improve the symptoms. However, improving the symptoms themselves does not always help improve the system and can sometimes allow the problem in the system to perpetuate further.

Let’s give another example of this from the perspective of joint pain.

 

Joint Pain as a Symptom

When it comes to pain within the body, we know that it does not occur within a vacuum. Pain always develops as a result of something else – i.e. It is a symptom.

Let’s say you were dealing with pain in the knee while running or doing another normal daily activity.

A symptoms approach to problem solving would see the knee pain itself (or inflammation of the knee) as the primary problem. This lens could lead to a wide variety of solutions to try and treat the pain. Some traditional and common solutions to knee pain include resting, applying ice, using a brace, using an anti-inflammatory substance, and many others. Along with these traditional approaches there are more modern methods including PRP injections, stem cells, peptides, different types of massage, light therapies, among a long list of therapies that all address the symptom of pain.

Not to say that doing these things is bad, but does just addressing the pain help address the underlying cause of the knee pain? Could only addressing the pain cause you to ignore the underlying issue while it gets worse without you realizing it?

For example, consider that if the way you move your body places excessive compression on the knee joint, then this excessive compression will elicit an inflammatory response.

If you take an anti-inflammatory to reduce the pain, but you continue to exercise the same way on that knee, then the compression could get progressively worse even though the symptom has been masked. Ultimately, masking the symptom would allow you to push yourself to the point that there is a much bigger problem - such as an injury that requires surgery to fix.

Even then, once the injury is fixed surgically, what if you never addressed the movement patterns that caused the compression in the first place? You might find yourself back in the same spot down the road, perhaps even requiring a knee replacement if it gets bad enough.

This is ultimately the problem with taking a symptoms approach to solving problems in the body, it often leads to the progression of the underlying issue.

 

Applying a Systems Approach to Pain

If your goal was to have one of the highest performing racecars ever, you would need to have a refined understanding of all the systems that work to make a racecar operate.

Just having good tires or a strong engine might help, but they will not optimize your performance. In order to optimize the performance of the racecar, you’d need to optimize every aspect of the mechanics within the car as possible.

Additionally, once one aspect of the racecar starts malfunctioning, this places excess stress on other aspects of the car and contributes to other malfunctions.

For example, if your alignment is off, this will impact the wear of the tires, which will negatively impact the speed and fuel efficiency of the car. 

By proactively taking care of all of the cars components, it can continue to operate at a high performance level with minimal malfunction.

The human body is a lot more complex than a racecar, but this analogy helps us understand a more sustainable approach towards addressing pain. Understanding the systems involved allows you to fix and prevent dysfunction.

 

Back to the First Principles of Human Movement

As we mention frequently, data suggests that the primary movements that humans are adapted for are standing, walking, running, and throwing while on two feet (S, S).

This means our musculoskeletal system is optimized for these functions. Oftentimes, when we experience physical pain within the body, it is a result of an error within our movement placing excessive pressure or strain on certain parts of the body.

This means that getting back to the fundamentals of proper movement would play a large role in addressing your pain. While improving your movement may not address the symptoms of pain as quickly as possible, it will be more likely to provide a long-term solution because it addresses the system first.

Additionally, the more fundamentally you can support a particular system, the more problems can be resolved or prevented because you are peripherally influencing every outcome of that system.

This is why it is important to understand the fundamental movements that make us human and set out to optimize them. By doing so we can optimize the human musculoskeletal system for long-term health and a pain-free life.

In addition to optimizing your movement, consuming an anti-inflammatory diet, getting appropriate sunlight exposure, getting into nature, prioritizing good sleep, hydrating well, and managing your stress will create a widespread impact on your health.

When you understand how the body works, and take a systems approach towards your health, you will no longer find yourself chasing symptoms.