Medical and pharmaceutical research has provided doctors with a broad range of effective treatments, including powerful drugs and precise new forms of surgery. Although there are many treatments that cure a disease or disorder, the majority are designed to relieve symptoms. Some treatments, such as immunizations, are given to prevent diseases developing. Treatments for sick, disabled, and elderly people are provided in hospital and at home by carers ranging from nurses and other professionals to relatives and friends.
When you are ill or injured, the first decision to be made is whether professional medical help is required. This may be obvious in an emergency but less so if the disorder is troublesome but does not appear to be serious. Many minor problems disappear without treatment, and many others can be dealt with using home or over-the-counter remedies.
Most treatments fall into one of three broad categories: drugs, surgery, or some form of supportive therapy or care. In practice, many disorders require a combination of treatments used simultaneously or in sequence, and often supported by nursing care.
The purpose of treatment may be to cure a disorder, slow down its progress, relieve symptoms, or prevent an illness developing. Supportive treatments, such as physiotherapy and counselling, focus on speeding up recovery or helping people to come to terms with their illness and live as independently as possible.
The optimal result of treatment is to cure an illness completely with minimum risk and side effects. When no cure is available, the next option is relief of symptoms. Some drugs relieve symptoms common to several conditions. Other drugs relieve symptoms that are specific to particular conditions. For example, bronchodilators are drugs that ease the wheezing that occurs in lung disorders such as asthma. Drugs may also be used to increase the levels of substances in the body, such as hormones and neurotransmitters. Even if a disease is incurable, treatment may still be able to slow its progression and relieve symptoms.
Before starting treatment, your doctor will discuss the available options with you. For minor illnesses or when there is only one suitable treatment, little discussion may be required. However, for a long-term disorder or one that is serious, there may be a choice between treatment with surgery or with drugs, or between different forms of surgery or different drugs. Your doctor will also discuss the risks or possible side effects of your treatment. Your consent will be needed before treatment can begin.
For most disorders, early diagnosis and treatment offer the best chances of a cure. Where there is no prospect of a cure, there may be little benefit in radical treatment. For example, when a person has advanced cancer, chemotherapy and radiotherapy may do little to prolong life and can cause debilitating side effects. The better option may be relief of symptoms in hospital or at home.
Advances in medicine have led to new treatments that play a major part in improving life expectancy and reducing long-term illness. New technologies have brought about improvements in surgical techniques that minimize post-operative pain, reduce risks and complications, and allow quicker recovery. However, before a new drug or technique is approved, it must be rigorously tested, and its effectiveness and safety demonstrated in controlled trials.
Over the past 100 years, medical research has produced safer and more reliably effective synthetic modifications of naturally occurring substances and some completely new drugs. Antibiotics and vaccines have revolutionized the treatment of infections.
Genetic engineering is now used to produce human insulin and other hormonal treatments. Research into the underlying mechanisms of disease has produced tailor-made drugs that target a particular part of a disease process. The development of immunosuppressant drugs that reduce the body’s rejection of new tissue has enabled transplants to be carried out successfully.
Surgery can now often be performed through a natural body opening or a small incision, which is sometimes known as “keyhole surgery”, using a viewing tube called an endoscope.
In microsurgery, surgeons use a specialized microscope and tiny instruments to perform operations on minute structures, such as nerves and small blood vessels. For operations on delicate areas, surgeons can wear a headset that displays three-dimensional images. Lasers and electrocautery equipment seal blood vessels as tissue is cut.
From the 2010 revision of the Complete Home Medical Guide © Dorling Kindersley Limited.