Great Smokies Medical Center of Asheville

Functional Symptoms vs. Organic Disease

Many, if not most, health complaints are termed functional, meaning that no known associated organic or pathological tissue changes can be found by the physician investigating possible causes of the symptoms. Functional symptoms can include headaches, fatigue, insomnia, irritability, abdominal pain, indigestion, low back pain, or simply not feeling well.
Organic or pathological disease are terms used to describe more advanced stages of disease that are accompanied by physical, cellular changes that can be identified by diagnostic testing. Examples of organic diseases include cancer, arthritis, heart disease, gastric ulcers, and emphysema.
Too often, diseases are diagnosed when they are more advanced, end-stage organic diseases. On the other hand, functional complaints can be too easily brushed aside by busy doctors who have an ever increasing number of drugs available to them that suppress functional symptoms—an approach that has been likened to covering up a car’s "check engine" light. People with functional complaints may feel frustrated when their doctor tells them that all their tests are normal. Doctors who are unable to establish physical evidence of organic disease may determine, rightly or wrongly, that the symptoms have psychological origins.
Holistically-oriented doctors find a patient’s reporting of functional symptoms, particularly when woven into the fabric of that patient’s life story, to be an opportunity to shed light on the earliest origins of disease.
Understanding the root causes of functional symptoms rather than suppressing them with drug therapies is one of the foundations of preventive healthcare.
When functional symptoms are understood by physicians who have a working knowledge of health in addition to knowledge of disease, a customized strategy for disease prevention can be developed.

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