The nature of suffering and the goals of medicine

N Engl J Med. 1982 Mar 18;306(11):639-45. doi: 10.1056/NEJM198203183061104.


The question of suffering and its relation to organic illness has rarely been addressed in the medical literature. This article offers a description of the nature and causes of suffering in patients undergoing medical treatment. A distinction based on clinical observations is made between suffering and physical distress. Suffering is experienced by persons, not merely by bodies, and has its source in challenges that threaten the intactness of the person as a complex social and psychological entity. Suffering can include physical pain but is by no means limited to it. The relief of suffering and the cure of disease must be seen as twin obligations of a medical profession that is truly dedicated to the care of the sick. Physicians' failure to understand the nature of suffering can result in medical intervention that (though technically adequate) not only fails to relieve suffering but becomes a source of suffering itself.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Disease*
  • Emotions*
  • Holistic Health
  • Humans
  • Pain / psychology
  • Patients / psychology*
  • Philosophy*
  • Philosophy, Medical*
  • Sick Role
  • Therapeutics