What’s the Difference Between “Disease” & “Syndrome”?

By Adrienne Dellwo, About.com Guide   August 17, 2011

Among the many confusing things you have to deal with when trying to learn about fibromyalgia syndrome (FMS) and chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS or ME/CFS) is the difference between a disease and a syndrome.

When doctors who don’t believe in FMS or ME/CFS are quoted in articles, they frequently lean heavily on the distinction. The word “syndrome” itself has been so misused in the popular media that it sounds a bit silly and overblown. But really, what’s the difference?

The definition of syndrome is pretty straight forward:

  • Syndrome: a collection of signs and symptoms known to frequently appear together but without a known cause.

Defining disease is a little more complicated. Many medical dictionaries define it as a disorder in a system or organ that effects the body’s function. Some, however, add more requirements:

  • Disease: a morbid entity characterized usually by at least two of these criteria:
    1. Recognized etiologic agent (cause)
    2. Identifiable group of signs and symptoms
    3. Consistent anatomic alterations

Here’s where you find the important distinctions. We still don’t have widely recognized causes for FMS and ME/CFS; signs and symptoms are too variable, and often point to numerous possible causes; and researchers have failed to find anatomic alterations that are consistent enough to stand up to scientific scrutiny.

It’s important to remember, though, that while the term syndrome sometimes seems to belittle the illness, it’s really just a classification based on what the medical establishment understands. When someone throws out that “it’s just a syndrome” argument, they should take a close look at what they’re really saying. Instead of it being an indication that an illness is somehow less valid than others, it’s really more of an indictment of the medical community for not yet figuring it out.

Compounding the confusion, once something gets an official name that contains syndrome, the name is sometimes not changed when it does meet the criteria for a disease. Case in point: AIDS — acquired immune deficiency syndrome. Remind someone that’s what the S in AIDS stands for the next time they condescendingly say, “It’s just a syndrome.”

About Michelle Arbore

I am 36 years old, married for 8 years and have an almost 3 year old, Michael Richard. We also have two cats (Anibel & Mama). I own my own social media management and coaching business that allows me to work from home. I like to read, listen to music, take photos, learn new things, shop, watch TV and spend time with family and friends. I also suffer from Fibromyalgia. I have suffered from this disease for over 15 years now. I started my blog so I could have a place to vent about what I am feeling. It has turned into a place where I post information about this disease, talk about books that I am reading about Fibro, and getting to meet other people who suffer from this.
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