Friday, October 10, 2014

What is Palliative Care?

By Leslie Vandever

In a world where advanced scientific and medical knowledge have made it possible to survive injuries, acute but deadly serious illnesses, and even cure once incurable diseases, there is now more need than ever before for compassionate, ongoing care that can soothe or relieve distress, discomfort, and pain.

The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines the medical meaning of palliative as:
“something that reduces the effects or symptoms of a medical condition without curing it.”
Today, palliative—or comfort—care is for anyone of any age who suffers from serious acute or chronic illness. Unlike hospice care, which is a compassionate form of care which may include palliative care but is only for patients who will soon die, palliative care is positive and life-affirming. It regards death as a normal life process and neither hastens nor postpones it.

Often started early in the process of caring for the patient—and frequently in conjunction with other therapies, such as chemo or radiation therapy for cancer—this deeply compassionate form of therapy combines both spiritual and psychological aspects of patient care not only to relieve discomfort and distress, but to improve the patient’s quality of life.

Palliative care’s goal is to relieve pain and other stressful or uncomfortable symptoms, such as:
  • nausea
  • difficulty with breathing
  • loss of appetite
  • sleep problems
  • bowel problems, such as constipation
  • fatigue
  • side effects of other therapies

Palliative care helps patients live as actively as they possibly can, and may influence the course of the illness in a positive way. It also focuses on the patient’s family, supporting them as they cope with their loved one’s illness, and, in some cases, bereavement.

Often, diseases and injuries may take a long time to cure or heal. Or, they may be incurable. Palliative care can make all the difference in the world to the patient in regards to quality of life.

A good example is the patient with the autoimmune disease rheumatoid arthritis. It causes the body’s immune system to attack the synovial lining of the joints (and often other soft tissues, like the heart, lungs, eyes, and veins) as if they were invasive, foreign bacteria or viruses, causing both acute and chronic inflammation around the joint and throughout the body. The inflammation may cause pain that is often severe and may even be disabling. Over time, the disease eats away at the cartilage between the bones, and the bones themselves, eventually causing joint deformity and permanent disability.

There are many good drug treatments and therapies available for RA. But although they can slow the progression of the disease, they can’t cure it. In the meantime, the symptoms—joint pain, fatigue, flu-like illness—may often remain.

Palliative care is vital for patients with RA. It treats these symptoms, including pain, and allows the patient to live her life as fully as possible. Palliating the symptoms may also prevent other problems, such as the depression that can result from pain and disability. And, palliative care offers patients other ways to enhance their quality of life, including cognitive therapy and alternative remedies such as acupuncture and biofeedback.

Palliative care applies to a myriad of chronic and acute diseases and conditions. It’s an integral and important part of today’s best medical care.

Leslie Vandever is a professional journalist and freelance writer with more than 25 years of experience. She lives in the foothills of Northern California.


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