Progressive Disorders and Diseases

A progressive disorder is a disease or health condition that gets worse over time, resulting in a general decline in health or function.

Man lying in hospital bed
David Sacks / The Image Bank / Getty Images

The term progressive disorder is often used to distinguish a condition from a relapsing and remitting disorder. In a relapsing and remitting disorder, there is often a period of relief when the disease is stable for a while or is in remission. In contrast, a progressive disorder does not have these breaks.

Depending on the diagnosis, a progressive may move quickly or very slowly.

Types and Examples

It's easier to describe exactly what a progressive disorder is by giving some examples for you to visualize. Note that these conditions all vary in the length of the course, but even though of variable length they are similar in that there is a general decline in health over time without episodes of "being back to normal" or being free of the symptoms.

Here we explain a few progressive disorders with a list of more to follow.

Osteoarthritis: Osteoarthritis is a degenerative joint disease causing continual joint wear and tear. Symptoms of osteoarthritis include joint stiffness and pain. There is no cure for the condition, which often affects older adults. Osteoarthritis is often treated with weight management support, pain relief medications and in severe conditions, surgery such as joint replacements.

Parkinson's Disease: Parkinson's disease is a nervous system disorder that affects movement in the body. Early signs of the disease are mild and often go unnoticed. One of the noticeable symptoms of this disease is tremors in the hands. Other symptoms can include stiffness, slowing of movement, slurred speech, little facial expression and less motion in the arms when walking. Although there is no cure for Parkinson's disease, there are several medications that can slow the progression of the disease.

Chronic Pancreatitis: Chronic Pancreatitis is a progressive disorder that is most common in men in their 30s and 40s and can be caused by excessive alcohol use, cystic fibrosis (another progressive disease) or genetics. Symptoms of the disease include upper abdominal pain, weight loss, and diarrhea. The disease is often treated with nutritional support and different types of pain management therapies.

Arachnoiditis: Arachnoiditis is a progressive rare disease that causes inflammation in the brain and causes a variety of neurological deficits and severe chronic neuropathic pain. Symptoms of the disease, which affects women more than men, include severe chronic pain that radiates to the lower extremities, gait abnormalities, muscle cramps, severe headaches, vision disturbances, hearing problems, dizziness, and nausea. While there is no cure for arachnoiditis, pain management medication is often prescribed. Psychotherapy is also recommended as many with the disease also suffer from depression.

Other Progressive Disorders: The conditions above are only a small example of progressive disorders but serve to illustrate the difficulty these conditions cause with coping. There are many neurological conditions in addition to Parkinson's disease, which are less common but no more frustrating. Other examples of progressive disorders include:

Coping and Support

Coping with any medical condition can be wearing, but dealing with a progressive disorder adds the extra stress of not "getting a break." In a way, it is like you never really get a chance to catch your breath. You may feel like once you finally adjust to a new level of disability, your condition worsens.

People have likened a progressive disorder to walking up a hill for 10 miles. With a relapsing-remitting disorder you may stop at a house along the way and sit down, or the ground may level off for a while. With a progressive disorder, in contrast, there are no rest stops along the way and no stretches where the ground is level for at least a little while.

Finding support if you are coping with one of these disorders is extremely important. Often times, support which involves caregivers or caregivers support groups is ideal as most of these disorders are experienced as a family disease.

For the more common progressive disorders, you may have a support group in your community. If you have a progressive condition which is less common, you may wish to find an online community. There is something special about talking to others who are coping with a similarly difficult-to-cope-with progressive conditions, or for your family to be able to talk with family members or others with a condition such as yours. Reach out. Ask for help. Be patient. People who have not been exposed to a progressive illness may not understand how draining it can be day to day. Hopefully, with time, your loved ones who do not yet understand the climate of progressive disease will learn, and in understanding, provide you the support you need.

5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Osteoarthritis (OA).

  2. NIH National Institute on Aging. Parkinson's Disease.

  3. Cedars Sinai. Chronic pancreatitis.

  4. NIH National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences. Arachnoiditis.

  5. NIH Genetics Home Reference. Cystic fibrosis

Additional Reading
  • U.S. National Library of Medicine. Degenerative Nerve Diseases.

By Erica Jacques
Erica Jacques, OT, is a board-certified occupational therapist at a level one trauma center.