Understanding medical symptoms: a conceptual review and analysis

Kirsti Malterud, Ann Dorrit Guassora, Anette Hauskov Graungaard, Susanne Reventlow
Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics 2015, 36 (6): 411-24
The aim of this article is to present a conceptual review and analysis of symptom understanding. Subjective bodily sensations occur abundantly in the normal population and dialogues about symptoms take place in a broad range of contexts, not only in the doctor's office. Our review of symptom understanding proceeds from an initial subliminal awareness by way of attribution of meaning and subsequent management, with and without professional involvement. We introduce theoretical perspectives from phenomenology, semiotics, social interactionism, and discourse analysis. Drew Leder's phenomenological perspectives deal with how symptom perception occurs when any kind of altered balance brings forward a bodily attention. Corporeality is brought to explicit awareness and perceived as sensations. Jesper Hoffmeyer's biosemiotic perspectives provide access to how signs are interpreted to attribute meaning to the bodily messages. Symptom management is then determined by the meaning of a symptom. Dorte E. Gannik's concept "situational disease" explains how situations can be reviewed not just in terms of their potential to produce signs or symptoms, but also in terms of their capacity to contain symptoms. Disease is a social and relational phenomenon of containment, and regulating the situation where the symptoms originate implies adjusting containment. Discourse analysis, as presented by Jonathan Potter and Margaret Wetherell, provides a tool to notice the subtle ways in which language orders perceptions and how language constructs social interaction. Symptoms are situated in culture and context, and trends in modern everyday life modify symptom understanding continuously. Our analysis suggests that a symptom can only be understood by attention to the social context in which the symptom emerges and the dialogue through which it is negotiated.

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