What Is the Difference Between a Disease and a Disorder?

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When a doctor suspects you have an autoimmune disease such as rheumatoid arthritis (RA), you may hear them speak about your symptoms and diagnosis in various terms such as disease, disorder, syndrome, and condition. While these terms may seem interchangeable, they all refer to specific states of health.

From Symptoms to a Disease Diagnosis

Symptom, syndrome, disorder, disease are all terms used as a hierarchy to classify how our health is affected. The symptoms are the first things we notice that indicate there might be a problem. When a group of symptoms occur together, they are classified as a syndrome.

Knowing the syndrome helps doctors analyze your health to determine the disorder. At that point, there is usually no direct implication that the symptoms are caused by one specific thing. When the cause of the disorder is determined then the diagnosis of the disease can be given.

Receiving a diagnosis of a specific autoimmune disease can take years. You may have clusters of symptoms that make it clear you have an autoimmune disorder of some sort but no concrete diagnosis. During the time it takes to receive the proper diagnosis, your condition, or how you feel on a daily basis, could vary.  

If you are experiencing arthritis symptoms, such as pain in your joints, your doctor may tell you that you have arthritis. Without knowing the exact cause of your symptoms, you are experiencing an arthritis syndrome or disorder. Often, arthritis syndromes and disorders are referred to simply as arthritis.

Once the cause of your arthritis is discovered then you will be informed of the disease. All diseases have a specific cause. In the case of rheumatoid arthritis, the cause is the immune system attacking the joints.

Disease vs. Illness

Illness is a broad concept while disease refers to a specific condition that can be diagnosed by a doctor. In looking at disease versus illness, the term illness is more subjective.

You may identify as being ill based on your symptoms. Some of your symptoms can be fleeting like a runny nose, and others can be more serious and long term like high blood pressure. When you have a disease, you have a specific condition that was determined by your doctor, and it is more objective.

What Is a Disease? 

A disease is a pathological process that doctors are able to see, touch, and measure. Diseases have particular signs and symptoms. When diagnosing autoimmune diseases, doctors will look for specific symptoms and clinical findings.

For example, rheumatoid arthritis mostly affects the joints, causing pain, swelling, stiffness, and loss of function. The disease can also cause fatigue, fevers, and loss of appetite.

To determine if your symptoms are caused by rheumatoid arthritis your doctor will take a full history, complete an exam, and may order other tests such as X-rays and blood tests.

What Is a Disorder?

A disorder is characterized by functional impairment and a disruption to the body’s normal function and structure. Rheumatoid arthritis is categorized as an autoimmune disorder.

Autoimmune disorders are a group of diseases noted by the fact that they cause the immune system to attack the body itself instead of foreign objects entering the body such as viruses or bacteria. In the case of RA, the immune system attacks the joints.

Disease vs. Disorder

While these two terms are often used interchangeably by doctors, there are subtle differences. A disease is distinct and measurable.

A disorder might indicate that a specific disease is possible but there is not enough clinical evidence for diagnosis. It may be clear you have an autoimmune disorder of some sort, but it may take time to receive a specific diagnosis like RA.

What Is a Syndrome?

A syndrome is a group of symptoms associated with a specific cause. With autoimmune disease, symptoms vary depending on the type of disease.

Autoimmune diseases are often classified into two groups, organ-specific or systemic. In organ-specific autoimmune diseases, the symptoms will affect or be caused by one specific organ.

For example, in hypothyroidism or Grave’s disease, the thyroid is the affected organ. The symptoms associated with those diseases will center around the thyroid.

When the autoimmune disease is systemic, meaning it affects the entire body. For example, in systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) or lupus, any organ of the body can be affected such as the heart, skin, brain, and kidneys. Knowing the specific symptoms, or syndrome can help a doctor diagnose the responsible disease.  

Syndrome vs. Disease

Syndromes are groups of symptoms associated with a disease. Knowing the syndrome can help diagnose the disease.

What Is a Condition? 

A condition indicates your state of health. It is an abnormal state that feels different from your normal state of wellbeing. Often, you’ll hear about someone’s condition when they are hospitalized and noted as being in stable or critical condition.

A Word From Verywell

Living with an autoimmune disease can be unpredictable but keeping an open line of communication with your doctor is key to living well with any disease. When you know something is wrong with your body and you’re on the path to a diagnosis, you may go through any of the phases mentioned above.

You might have clusters of symptoms that correspond to certain syndromes or disorders and your condition can remain in flux. With autoimmune diseases, there can be good and bad days but working with your doctor to reach a specific diagnosis of a disease can help you manage your health.

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