Santa Barbara Wellness Directory
The Tip of the Iceberg

By Dr. Allison Barriscale
Pride Wellness Columnist
Re-Printed with permission from Pride News Magazine

We have all heard the expression "Just the tip of the iceberg." Have you ever wondered why we use this expression? It implies that what we are seeing or experiencing on the surface of our awareness is only a small part of a much larger process. When we see an iceberg, as in the picture attached, we only see about 20% of the iceberg that floats above the surface, the majority of the volume of the iceberg exists underneath the surface of the water. What relevance does this have in our health?

Pain and symptoms are "Just the tip of the iceberg" within our bodies. By the time a pain or a symptom comes to the surface where we can consciously feel or have an awareness of it, the process has already been in the works for a significant amount of time. In the case of a heart attack for example, that process has been in the works for 10 to 20 years by the time the symptom of the heart attack surfaces. Was that person who did not have any symptoms healthy prior to the onset of the heart attack?

How do we know if we are healthy? If we do not have symptoms are we healthy?

We tend to gauge our health on how we feel, on whether we have symptoms or not. Our health care system is primarily set up to deal with symptoms, or "the tip of the iceberg." Symptoms are actually a very inaccurate gauge of our health. The truth is that we really cannot know how healthy our bodies are at any moment. The presence or absence of symptoms actually tells us very little about our overall health.

There are two myths that our society has perpetuated about symptoms:
1. If I have symptoms I must be sick.
2. If I do not have symptoms I must be well.
Let us look at the first myth. In most cases symptoms are a healthy adaptation to a process going on in the body. Our bodies are intelligent and are always working to do what is best for us.

An example of a healthy symptom is a fever. Fever is created by the nerve system to fight off infection. At higher temperatures the immune system becomes more active and invading organisms such as bacteria have a harder time surviving at high temperatures. Vomiting is another example; where the body is trying to eliminate a toxin to protect itself.

What about pain? Is pain bad? I tell you, I sure want to have pain when I place my hand on a red-hot burner. If I did not have pain my hand would cook and I would be dealing with a whole other host of problems.

Pain and symptoms are messages sent by the body to alert us that we need to make a change. When we attempt to suppress symptoms by covering them up, with medications for example, we often miss the message and have not dealt with the issue. If, for example, I have a headache, what I will normally do is listen to the pain signal my body is sending me and drink some water, and usually it goes away. What if instead of drinking water, I took a Tylenol? My head would probably stop aching because I was numb to it, however my body would not have received the water it was asking for to remain hydrated. When we cover up symptoms we often end up creating other issues in the body.

Let us look at the second myth now. There can be processes going on in our bodies underneath the surface that we are completely unaware of. Heart disease is one example, cancer is another. We can have cancer growing in our body and not have any symptoms, so would we be healthy, or unhealthy in this case?

When I used to have back pain, sometimes I would bend over to pick something up off the floor and my back would "go out" and I would be in excruciating pain. I know that it was not picking up a sock that hurt my back; the sock was just '"the straw that broke the camel's back" so to speak. I know that there was process going on in my back underneath the surface of my awareness that led up to the symptomatic event. I also know that when my pain did subside that I was not healed, there was still weakness in the tissues that required healing.

So if symptoms are an inaccurate gauge of our health, why do we often wait until we have symptoms until we take action? Chiropractors and other alternative practitioners work with what is going on underneath the surface, not "just the tip of the iceberg". True health and wellness care involves being proactive and taking care of oneself when we are sick and when we are well.

Allison Barriscale, Chiropractor

Café of Life

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