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Disease versus Disorder: What’s in a Word?

Posted by | 2:37am on Thursday, February 26, 2009

The terms “disease” and “disorder” are often used interchangeably.  But a recent conversation among colleagues made me reflect on the use of these words and questioned if there actually is a difference.

NORD doesn’t seem to make the distinction, as seen from the definition of rare disorders listed on their website:

What is A Rare Disorder?
A rare or “orphan” disease affects fewer than 200,000 people in the United States.  There are more than 6,000 rare disorders that, taken together, affect approximately 25 million Americans.

The definitions are not clearly differentiated in Dorland’s medical dictionary:

  • Disease: a definite pathological process having a characteristic set of signs and symptoms.  It may affect the whole body or any of its parts, and its etiology, pathology, and prognosis may be known or unknown.  See also illness, mal, sickness, and syndrome.
  • Disorder: a derangement or abnormality of function; a morbid physical or mental state.

It turns out people in the online community are curious as well and are asking for proper terminology via forums and chat rooms. After reading through threads, I’ve noticed that those who do recognize a distinction often describe that a disease is due to extrinsic factors (e.g., virus, bacteria) and a disorder is due to intrinsic abnormalities (e.g., birth defects, genetic malfunction). Do you agree?

Whether or not this designation is accurate, distinctions are definitely made in certain contexts.  It’s Parkinson disease, not Parkinson disorder; sleep disorder, not sleep disease.  And if you think about it, “heart disease” does have a slightly different connotation from “heart disorder”.  For example, a blocked artery can lead to heart disease, whereas an inherently defective heart valve might be classified under heart disorder.  Then again, maybe that’s just me.

You say disorder, I say disease.  Tomato, tomahto.  Whatever you call it, at least one thing’s for sure—they both share the same goal, which is to prevent it, manage it, treat it and/or find a cure.

What do you think?  Do you consider disorder and disease synonymous?  Or do you think there are apparent differences?  I’d love to hear your thoughts in the section below.

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(Image courtesy of Southernpixel via Flickr)

About Soyoon Bolton

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  • 05 March 2012 at 2:03am
    What's in a word? You say ...
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  • jermaine
  • 23 April 2013 at 8:04pm
    [...] research.  I have a few more to show you tonight.  Here is one I found on the difference between disease and disorder.  Next, we have this ...
  • Tricky Tuesday… | The Burned Hand
  • http://www.undiagnosedillness.org Undiagnosed Illness

    Fantastic article. I think alot of the time people refer to certain illnesses as Diseases when infact it really is a disorder. Interesting topic….

    There are apparent differences in my opinion depending on the condition.

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  • Jim _Dziaji

    I agree that there is a difference. My take on the difference is that “disease” has a specific identifiable cause and symptoms. “Disorder” refers to an unwanted condition that’s hard to say what could be wrong.

    For instance cancer is a disease because you can identify the tumors that are causing the symptoms. Alcoholism would be an example of a disorder because, for some reason, the patient doesn’t have control and becomes addicted. However, alcoholism can lead to cirrhosis of the liver, which is a disease.

  • http://www.goldkeyendeavours.com Vicky Jeter

    I am glad to see a general consensus that there is a distinction between a disorder and a disease. The condition that inspired my research on this question is regarding Anorexia. I came across mention of this disorder referenced as a disease, which I believe is incorrect, but I needed verification of that before I recommend that the reference be changed. To my understanding. It is interesting sitting with this in common with others considering the question. It appears to me clearly first, that yes, there is a distinction, which I believe is fundamentally that disorders have inherent subjective and/or psychological initial aspects, where diseases such as Parkinsens or Cancer do not. Where it gets to be challenging in keeping the distinction straight is that many, if not most long-term disorders left unchecked will lead to some for of disease state developing in the body, due to systems breakdown. Such is the case, for example, with Alcoholism, which is mentioned as a disorder above. In initial stages, this is accurate, and it is also very true that the psychological dysfunctions in behavior and relationship, which lead to cycles of addiction, when left unchecked, do also become a physiological disease. In Alcoholics, the physiological component is related to the inability of the body to process alcohol, in a similar way to a diabetic being unable to process sugar.

  • Amit S

    Certainly a well explained article. It will clear doubt of most content developers online. It is also a fact that it is widely accepted that both terms are synonyms to each other and i guess it will take some time for writers to get acquitted to this discovery. It should be made common. All the best.

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  • Expert Byexperience

    I think of a disease as something that may occur in anyone if the right events or precipitants occur, and there is a breakdown of tissue or processes, whereas a disorder is one where only certain individuals have a genetic defect that causes a dysfunction of basic processes. A disease state may result from the dysfunction but the reason why each came about are different. Case in point is diabetes.

    As for medical states where it is unknown, the word idiopathic comes to mind (which is idiotic, as it really doesn’t explain anything except that it’s not known, and may infers that the patient is faking it, depending upon how the physician writes up his/her notes, and depending upon what the symptoms are.

    Case in point is a very rare genetic disorder called porphyria. The symptoms could be associated with many common medical conditions (the word conditions is all encompassing), and the range of symptoms and presentation can vary widely as well, but due to its rarity and lack of knowledge of the need for careful collection and handling of the specimens, it often goes undiagnosed (and dismissed).

    This was demonstrated a couple of decades ago when a correlation was found for those with mental symptoms severe enough to be hospitalized in psych wards. Researchers found a higher percent of people who had porphyria as compared to the general population were found in psych wards. Once the item that caused the psychosis was removed (psych drugs), the symptoms went away. It’s a disorder because of a mistake in the genetic code for making heme. Damage to systems and processes does occur with symptoms, but stops once the thing that triggered the symptoms is taken away (in this case psychiatric drugs).

    But that’s just my humble opinion based on personal experience and lots of research after being labeled with abdominal pain of “idiopathic” origin. But now I have a medical disorder that is associated with a specific, demonstrable lab result. It’s both the journey and the destination that are important. You learn a lot during the journey, but are glad to get to your destination.

  • max brown

    i find that this subject is very interesting but none of you gave a straight out answer so i’m just going to say what i think it is i think a distorter is just a nicer way of saying you have a disease and we don’t know how you got it or how to get rid of it sorry. but i am very curious to know the correct scientific answer so if it is ever found please e mail me.

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  • http://twitter.com/ellenmmartin Ellen

    Anyone know what the difference between a disease and a “disease state” is?

    • http://twitter.com/eileenobrien Eileen O’Brien

      Good question Ellen! I see them used interchangeably.

  • http://www.designedthinking.com michael arndt

    Disease is caused by an external influence (virus, bacteria, mutation) which overpower the bodies defenses. Disorder is a disruption in the system. There is a big difference between a psychological disorder and a brain disease. Many unexplained mental challenges are labeled illness. Even genetic predispositions do not mean definitive symptoms will be present, they still have to develop, to be pushed into disorder
    Let’s take another example. We say social disease (sexual transmitted), which is usually thought of differently than a sick society, which would be a social disorder. Society can have conflicting ideas, struggles and conflict. any chaos society finds itself in means it is in disorder, but that order can be restored, like from war to peace. It is inaccurate to say society has disease and then was cured when economic sanctions were put in place, bombs were dropped or one side makes concessions.

    • Alex Gray

      Explain autoimmune diseases?

      • Grant Robinson

        They’re not diseases. They are caused by genetic abnormalities within the individual. Why do we need to classify everything into 2 boxes?

        • http://www.Ihateyou.com Alex Gray

          I was approaching the question under the general assumption we already understood the physiology of each. I was wondering if you had any insight into why a host of disorders fall under the subcategory of a disease. It’s a bit confusing. It seems to be incorrect group labeling since it implies the words “disease” and “disorder” are freely interchangeable.

          • Grant Robinson

            It’s a good question that I don’t have an answer to, unfortunately. Well educated people seem to be aware what a disorder is, but the incorrect labels still stick. English is a funny language though, we drive on parkways and park on driveways. It could be as simple as that.

            I also think problem stems from trying to put such a wide variety of ailments into two categories. For example, the classification addiction has been the cause of contentions debate. It obviously isn’t a disease and it doesn’t really fit as a disorder. All physical symptoms disappear shortly after the substance does. They are just addictions, they describe the problem perfectly. It isn’t a disease or a disorder.

        • http://www.Ihateyou.com Alex Gray

          their incorrect labels, not their definitions. i know what they are.

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  • Tommy Sanchez

    Autism is a good example of a disorder, NOT a disease.

    • John Bateman

      Great example, I think, from Tommy Sanchez! The way I personally look at the difference is a disease you can catch. A disorder is something that can just happen. My example is “acid reflux disease” NO, you can’t catch it from someone or something. It’s a disorder that just happens, usually because of poor diet. So I don’t think the two words can be synonymous…

      • Alex Gray

        Grave’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Heart disease. etc, aren’t contagious. There’s actually over 80 autoimmune diseases that prove your notion false

  • Michael Malone

    A disorder can be a genetic mutation and can cause many types of diseases. Hemochromatosis is a genetic disorder that, if not discovered early, can cause numerous diseases in the body. The National Library of Medicine, The National Institute of Diabetes & Digestive & Kidney Diseases and the CDC all call it a disease. To someone who has Hemochromatosis and has been giving blood for 15 years to combat diseases from it…. the two words make a BIG difference. Thanks for your page for comments.

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  • Kimberly Baker

    What you consider Hypothyroidism? I have just been diagnosed with it at at 28 and I am try to do as much research as possible, starting at the basics off is it a disease or disorder.

    • Suzie

      For me, disorder, but I was born with it (I’m 28, too) so.. there’s my bias. On a page on Facebook, Hypothyroid Mom, I’ve seen it considered a disease. I suppose it’s up to the patient.

  • drkalp

    Dont make it so much complex. It should be consider in broader perspective.

    Disorder is the any condition that has happened due to some particular parameter/state of body/mind is/are out of normal range/criteria. And which can be restored back to normal, called as cured. So its quantitative terminology.

    While disease is the any condition that has happened to body/mind as a denovo which was not happening before or in any amount that condition is called as disease. And it can be eliminated from body/mind, called as cured. So its like all or none/qualitative terminology.

  • tina

    My hospital recognize disorders as congenital and genetic. Disorders are largely treated but not cured and are of a rarer nature. Diseases are typically more treatable. However, it does not insure that the cure is successful.

    • Alex Gray

      Explain autoimmune diseases

      • http://batman-news.com Lt.

        My friend, you are confusing autoimmune DISEASES and autoimmune DISORDERS. AIDS is an autoimmune DISEASE (caused by a virus you can catch) whereas Parkinson’s and Sickle-Cell Anemia are both autoimmune DISORDERS (caused by genetics). Please refer to my post on

        • http://www.Ihateyou.com Alex Gray

          Look up addison’s disease. It is a disorder. The terms are interchangeable.

    • http://batman-news.com Lt.

      Spot on.

  • Laci Alexandra Hulsey

    How would Bipolar disorder be classified, is it a disease?

    • http://batman-news.com Lt.

      Bipolar Disorder is exactly as it sounds…a disorder lol (sorry if that sounded asshole-ish, did not mean to!). The general difference between disorders and diseases is that one is caused by external factors (i.e. viruses, bacteria) while the other is caused by malformation in the body’s own genes (genetics). For instance, Bipolar Disorder; people with a diagnosable case of Bipolar Disorder (whether I or II) have a family member (whether they know it or not) who also has a psychiatric disorder like Borderline Personality (which shares many similar traits with Bipolar I). Now a disease is variably different because they are caused by enviornmental influences. Somebody on here keeps referencing autoimmune diseases…he doesn’t understand that there are both autoimmune diseases AND autoimmune disorders. AIDS would be an autoimmune DISEASE because it is caused by a virus which is envinornmental. However, Parkinson’s and Sickle-Cell anemia (some will argue that Sickle-Cell isn’t autoimmune..it is. It’s the bodies misguided response to a viral threat. The genetic malformation occured as an immune response to malaria, you can look it up if you want lol) are both autoimmune DISORDERS because they are both caused internally (genetics-disclaimer-although there is no sure-fire reason for Parkinson’s, recent studies suggest it is a genetic disorder). I know these things, because my sister (who is a med student in KC) is a wealth of information lol.

  • Ronny Shiver

    just an opinion, but seems like a disorder is something you would treat with the intention of making it better (or less profound), while a disease would be treated with the intention of affecting a cure.

  • Gabe1972

    Alcoholism is a good example of something being a disorder and not a disease. The same with drug addiction.

  • Alex Gray

    there’s about 80 autoimmune diseases. you can’t catch an autoimmune disease.

  • Alex Gray

    Initially, I also thought diseases and disorders were different. But then I realized there’s actually over 80 autoimmune diseases. those all happen within your own body and are not contagious.

  • Crikey Mate

    When I use the words disease, disorder and disturbance with an illness I
    see the three of them as such:

    (1) Disease, a diagnosed illness, abnormal pathological biomarker tests, known symptoms and known cause (cancer by viral, bacterial, physical, genetics and environmental factors, such as chemicals, poisonous fumes, ionised radiation, electrical fields or wireless non-ionised radiation)

    (2) Disorder, undiagnosed illness, normal/abnormal pathological biomarker tests, normal/abnormal symptoms, and unknown cause (multitude of different types of syndromes, such as Chronic Fatigue, Fibro Myalgia, Irritable Bowel, Sick School Syndrome, etc., that can lead to disease) (environmental factors, such as chemicals, poisonous fumes, ionised radiation, electrical fields or
    wireless non-ionised radiation)

    (3) Disturbance, diagnosed illness, normal/abnormal pathological biomarker tests, normal symptoms, and possible known cause (either cardiovascular, neurological and haemodynamic disturbances that can lead to disease) (such as chemicals, poisonous fumes, ionised radiation, electrical fields or wireless non-ionised radiation.)

  • jaby45

    I think it prudent to differentiate between intrinsic and extrinsic causes. However, both words are synonymous and both call for treatment. The differences are only apparent, and have more to do with classification for academic reasons.

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