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Basic Clinical Jargon to Know Before Getting a Diagnosis

Kelsey Tyler

Effective communication is vital to the diagnostic process. It’s a two-way street: Your doctor needs to understand what your symptoms and health concerns are, and you need to understand their explanation of any diagnosis you receive. This is especially important when it comes to working with a provider to manage a newly diagnosed condition.

Doctors know that most patients aren’t fluent in medical-speak, so they typically avoid using esoteric jargon during appointments. But some jargon inevitably comes up in the exam room. So it’s helpful for patients to know what common clinical terms mean and how they’re used.

“Whatever is being said, you should understand what’s going on,” Dr. Marshall Chin, a professor at the The University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine, says. “If you’re not clear on a word, or a term that’s being used, you should ask about that. Even though there are very clean definitions for different terms, in practice, people might use them differently. You can never go wrong in asking for an explanation.”

Here are four groups of extremely common clinical terms — what they technically mean, how they’re used and how they’re related to similar concepts and phrases. 

Medical condition, disease, illness, disorder and syndrome

Medical condition is an umbrella term for words including disease, illness, syndrome or disorder. Some of these terms are used interchangeably by physicians, but they all mean slightly different things. 

Illness is a fairly broad concept that describes a finite amount of time in your life when you’re feeling sick. Illnesses have a beginning and an end. A disease is a bodily malfunction that doctors can see and measure. For a health problem to be a disease, it needs to have an established biological root cause and a defined set of symptoms.

A disorder is considered an irregularity, disturbance or interruption in your body. The difference between a disease and a disorder is a little murky, but lies in the origin of the problem: While doctors can pinpoint the cause behind diseases behind diseases, disorders can be harder to pin down. Examples include mental disorders, such as obsessive compulsive disorder, and autoimmune disorders, such as rheumatoid arthritis.

A syndrome is a group or cluster of symptoms caused by a phenomenon that’s not directly understood. Examples include irritable bowel syndrome and chronic fatigue syndrome, which are both notably hard to diagnose and treat. (When doctors determine the causes of syndromes, they are often renamed as diseases. For instance, Kawasaki syndrome became Kawasaki disease when clinicians determined its cause.) 

Although each of these terms has a precise clinical definition, Chin says the differences usually aren’t emphasized in practice: “If you have this conversation about the difference between disorder and disease with 12 doctors, you could get close to 12 different definitions because it’s not something we talk about much.” This is why it’s always important to talk to your doctor, and clarify any misunderstandings you may have.

Chronic illness vs. chronic disease; acute illness; and autoimmune disease vs. autoimmune disorder

As a rule of thumb, the CDC says chronic diseases are conditions that last one year or more and require ongoing medical attention or limit activities of daily living, or both. Examples include heart disease, diabetes, and other conditions, like Crohn’s disease. 

Although chronic disease, and chronic illness tend to be used interchangeably, chronic illness refers to the long term bouts of sickness people with chronic diseases face. 

Acute illnesses are short term illnesses that develop suddenly and last a finite amount of time. That pesky seasonal cold you develop every winter that lasts a week or so? That’s an acute illness.

Autoimmune diseases occur when your body mistakenly attacks itself. Everytime a foreign bug enters your body, your immune system fights back. When you have an autoimmune disease, your body acts as if normal, functioning parts of your physiology, like your joints, if you have rheumatoid arthritis, are foreign. Autoimmune diseases are classified as disorders of the immune system, which is why you sometimes might hear them referred to as autoimmune disorders. 

Examples include Type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, and more. Many autoimmune diseases are chronic, but not all chronic diseases are autoimmune. 

Symptom, sign, side effect and adverse effect

Symptoms are subjective physical or mental changes experienced by someone due to a particular disease. They’re considered subjective because healthcare providers only know about symptoms if patients point them out. Common examples of symptoms of diseases include pain, nausea or fatigue. 

There are three main types of symptoms:Chronic symptoms tend to recur over a long time. Relapsing symptoms abate but return later. Remitting symptoms improve and eventually disappear.

A sign is an obvious, objective and identifiable physical change stemming from a medical condition that is detectable by your doctor. If both a patient and their doctor notice a sign, it can also be classified as a symptom. Examples include rashes, high blood pressure and coughs. 

Unlike symptoms, side effects aren’t caused by a medical condition itself. Instead, they develop as a result of drugs, treatment or medical procedures.  Clinical trials often assess side effects are often to determine if the benefits of a medication, surgical procedure or other type of treatment outweigh the potential risks.Most side effects aren’t life threatening — and many disappear after using medication for a while. Examples include headaches, nausea and hot spells. Patients are typically told about any likely or possible side effects in advance. 

Adverse effects are unforeseen side effects with potentially harmful consequences. Because they’re unpredictable, patients aren’t warned about them ahead of time. that can have potentially dangerous impacts. They occur  much less often than normal side effects. Examples include extreme reactions to medication, such as blood clots.

Risk factor, comorbidity and preexisting condition

A risk factor is something that can increase your chances of developing a certain disease or disorder. Behavioral risk factors are those within your control. For instance, smoking is a behavior that increases someone’s risk of developing lung cancer.  increasing your risk of developing lung cancer.  

Biomedical risk factors are measurable physiological things, like hypertension or obesity. These are considered risk factors because they can contribute to the development of other medical conditions, especially chronic diseases, down the road. 

You have a comorbidity if you have two or more diagnosed medical conditions, like arthritis and heart disease, at the same time. Even conditions like eczema and allergies can be considered comorbidities, as long as you have them simultaneously. Comorbid conditions are also called coexisting or co-occurring conditions, or sometimes multimorbidities/multimorbidity. These terms are all interchangeable.

“Comorbid” conditions are also called  coexisting or co-occurring conditions, or sometimes even “multimorbidity.”) 

As a rule of thumb, conditions described as comorbidities are often chronic. For this reason, comorbidities can also often be classified as risk factors. The fact that conditions are comorbid doesn’t mean they’re causally related (i.e., that one of them caused the other). But they’re often interconnected. For example, excess weight gain, or obesity, is directly tied to causing hypertension. 

A pre-existing condition is a health condition a person has prior to enrolling in healthcare coverage. While you might assume pre-existing conditions are only serious issues, like cancer, heart disease or diabetes, pre-existing conditions can also be as minor as seasonal allergies or acne. It’s worth noting that this isn’t a clinically meaningful term — the reason it’s important to know if you have a preexisting condition is for insurance purposes. Under current law, luckily, health insurers can’t refuse to cover you or charge you more if you have a pre-existing condition. 

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