Do you have an invisible illness? Do you know someone who has an invisible illness? What is an invisible illness? InvisibleIllnessWeek says that most chronic illnesses are invisible and estimates that “Approximately 96% of people who live with an illness have an illness that is invisible.”
What do we see when we look at an illness?
Let’s look at a trivial illness, one that is easy to understand, easy to cure. Suppose you have a hangover, from drinking too much alcohol last night, and maybe too much coffee, and not enough water. Your mouth is dry, your head is sore, and the smallest noise is jarring. You are severely dehydrated. Your illness might be diagnosed as ‘hangover’, or perhaps simply as dehydration.
You can see and feel the signs and symptoms of your illness. Headache, dry mouth, bad breath. But signs and symptoms are not the illness, they are the consequences of the illness, or consequences of the cause.
We know the causes of the illness: too much booze in too little time (last night). Maybe too little sleep, too little water. But, the causes are not the illness, they are just the causes. These causes don’t always lead to a hangover, just sometimes, depending on how fit you are, how much alcohol you consumed, your level of tolerance for alcohol, how much water you drank to compensate, and even your level of tolerance for your symptoms.
We know how to cure a hangover. It’s trivial, although many pretend otherwise. The simplest cure is adequate hydration and time. You can take a medicine for your symptoms – but these do not cure, they only help with the symptoms. The cure is not the illness.
Where is the illness? Where is the hangover? Where does it go, when it is cured?
Illness is invisible.
Where does the hole go, after you eat the doughnut?
Where does your illness go, after it is cured?
An illness is more accurately defined as an active, negative hole in your health. A hole that is not active might be a disability, but not necessarily an illness. A hole that is not negative, a pierced ear, for example, is not an illness.
If you have a migraine, and you cure it, where does it go? If you have a cold, and you cure it, where does it go? If you are dehydrated, and you drink some water, where does your illness go?
Illness is not something that can be touched, or seen. There are no visible illnesses, only visible causes and visible symptoms. An illness is a hole in your health. Holes are invisible. We only notice their presence by observing healthiness.
Illnesses Caused by Deficiency
If you have a nutritional deficiency, like scurvy, or beriberi, or dehydration, you don’t actually ‘have something’, you have the absence of something. Your illness consists of the symptoms of your deficiency, and might even extend to symptoms and damage caused by your deficiency. If you have scurvy, the symptoms include swollen gums, bleeding teeth, joint pain and shortness of breath. But these symptoms are not the illness, they are the symptoms. Each of these symptoms that might be caused by many different illnesses. Shortness of breath might even be caused by healthy exercise.
When the illness is cured, these symptoms might all go away. In some cases, not all of the damage will be healed; some joint damage, even joint pain, might remain. The joint pain that remains might become a chronic illness, but that illness is not the nutritional deficiency illness, it’s consequence, a handicap, a deficit, or damage that might heal over time.
When you have scurvy, we can’t see the actually illness, we can’t touch it, and when it is cured, we can’t prove that it is ‘gone’ either. Scurvy is an invisible illness.
When you have a minor, short term nutrient deficiency, you don’t have an illness. You have a small hole in your health. When the hole grows to a certain size, symptoms begin to appear. You still might not have a diagnosable illness. Then, as the hole grows, it reaches a certain invisible size, where the symptoms reach a diagnosable level. You have an illness. As you address the cause, the hole fades, and the invisible illness fades away.
It wasn’t there. Then it was there, but it was invisible. Then it disappeared.
Illness Caused by Excess
What if you have carbon monoxide poisoning? You have something. But we can’t see carbon monoxide poisoning, we can’t touch it. We can measure the level of carbon monoxide in your blood. The result of a measurement is a sign, or a symptom, perhaps indicating an illness – but the measurement, the results of a measurement are not the illness. The symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning, which include headache, dizziness, upset stomach, vomiting, and confusion. But these symptoms are not ‘the illness’.
When carbon monoxide poisoning is cured, the symptoms go away. The body recovers its health. Where did the invisible illness go?
Are there any visible illnesses?
Illness Cause by Excessive Growth
We often think of illnesses as visible things. One of the most visible illnesses is a wart. When you have a wart, it can be clearly seen. When it is cured, it is clearly gone. It flakes away, or falls off. Or does it?
Warts are caused by a skin infection that causes rapid growth of skin cells near the infection. The skin cells, the wart cells, are actually ‘your cells’, reacting to, or to fighting the infection. When the infection is defeated, your skin cell growth goes back to normal, the overgrown skin, the wart, dies and flakes off.
The wart is gone. The wart was not the infection, it was a symptom, your body’s reaction to the infection. Is a wart a ‘visible’ illness? We might debate the question, but what is the purpose of the debate? Does it help us find a cure? No. If a surgeon cuts off the wart, does he have a wart? No. The result is a piece of deformed dead skin. If he “get’s it all”, every bit of the wart, is it cured? Not necessarily. The wart is caused by a viral infection that is not limited to the location of the wart. Cutting off the wart might not actually address the ‘so small it’s almost invisible’ cause of the illness. The wart is not the illness. Removing it does not necessarily remove the illness.
The cause is not the illness, it is only the cause. Not everyone gets a wart from the virus that causes warts. The virus alone is not the cause. We think of a wart as a visible illness, because the symptom has the same name as the illness.
A simple error. We often make the same error with cancers.
Is cancer a visible illness? Isn’t a cancer tumor a visible illness? Actually, no.
It is possible to have cancer cells, but not have the illness cancer. Researchers tell us that, after a certain age, almost everyone has cancer cells. It is possible to have a benign cancer tumor, and not have an illness. Autopsies of dead people find that many elderly people have ‘many cancer tumors’ that are not ‘cancer illnesses’. The healthy body often isolates cancerous cells into a capsule so the cells cannot grow, cannot escape. You don’t have a cancer illness until the cancer escapes, or until the cancer starts unrestrained growth.
Cancer cells are not the illness, they are not the cause of the illness. They are symptoms of the unhealthiness that causes their presence and growth. The illness is invisible, it is only present, can only be diagnosed, when the cells growth causes danger to your health. Cancer cells are only an illness when they create an active hole in your health.
Defining an illness is as challenging as finding the hole in a doughnut after you’ve eaten it.
Diseases are diagnosed by measuring signs and symptoms. But signs and symptoms are not the disease, they are the physical consequences of the cause. Medical professionals diagnose a disease by observing and measuring a set of symptoms, because a single symptom can be caused by many diseases.
Diagnosis is an error prone activity, with both positive errors – over diagnosis, and negative errors – under diagnosis, and even simple wrong diagnosis, being relatively commonplace. Why does this happen?
It happens because an illness is a hole. The actual illness is invisible. Disease only exists when the diagnosis is completed. Without a diagnosis, the patient cannot get time off work, cannot get a prescription for treatment, cannot get insurance to pay for treatment. A medial diagnosis is often a legal requirement for an illness, because the actual illness is invisible.
It is possible for an illness to exist because of a wrong diagnosis, and then disappear when the diagnosis is corrected. How does it disappear? It never existed. It existed legally, when the initial (incorrect) diagnosis was completed. But it didn’t really exist. Now that the diagnosis has been corrected – a new invisible illness exists.
Every Illness has a Cause
When we recognize that every illness is a hole in your health, every illness is invisible, we can turn our focus to the important issue: the cause.
Every illness is invisible. Every illness has a cause. Causes are not invisible. We need to make causes visible. When we pretend illnesses are visible, it’s too easy to ignore cause. Too easy to focus our attention on the symptoms, on what is visible, and to ignore, or to make the cause invisible.
We cannot cure an invisible illness, we can only address causes. When we address the causes, invisible illnesses disappear. When we address causes, we are healthier. The holes in our health are filled in, they disappear, the invisible illnesses disappear. Make it so.
to your health, tracy
Tracy is the author of two books about healthicine: