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The differences between syndrome, disorder and disease

The differences between syndrome, disorder and disease

May 6, 2021

In the field of health and psychology, the use of three key concepts is very frequent: the syndrome, the disorder and the disease .

These are words with great force, because at the popular level they tend to associate with the lack of health and the problems in the organism, some of which could be chronic and therefore have no cure. But nevertheless, that does not mean that in scientific, academic and health environments they are used as synonyms . In fact, they are not.

Next we will examine the differences between the disease, the syndrome and the disorder, but first we must clarify the meaning of the word "symptom" in order to understand all the rest.

What is a symptom?

In the field of health, a symptom is the expression of an anomalous state , that is, the consequence of a phenomenon that is manifesting in a body. In this way, a symptom could be a warning signal that a patient may have their health compromised in some way, or it could be a "false alarm".

That is, a symptom can be many things, and the fact that they are present does not serve as a definitive confirmation that someone's health is compromised: for example, a patient can say that his head hurts (symptom) without this being a sign that he has an illness .


A syndrome is a set of symptoms that occur together and that has been previously studied and that, therefore, has been identified as a clinical picture linked to one or several health problems. Thus, in a syndrome there are a series of symptoms that occur together very frequently. However, the symptoms that make up a syndrome can vary with time and therefore it may disappear.

What is the difference between a syndrome and a disease? Now we will see it.

The illness

The concept of disease, such as that of syndrome, is a clinical entity, and therefore has to do with health problems. However, if a syndrome is nothing more than a set of symptoms already studied and identified as having its own entity by having a typical way of manifesting itself, A disease must present, in addition to one or more symptoms, or recognizable changes in the body or a known biological cause (or both).

That is to say, that a syndrome, being essentially a set of symptoms, does not have to have a known cause or develop at the same time as anatomical alterations.

Thus, some syndromes can be the manifestation of a disease, but others can not, since their causes can be as biological as, for example, social.

What is a disorder?

In generic terms, by disorder can be understood simply an alteration of the state of health normal due or not to a disease. The area in which it is most common to speak of disorders is that of mental health. A mental disorder is usually understood as a maladaptive (and, therefore, problematic) change that affects mental processes.

Many times the term disorder is used as a more lax way of referring to the disease in those cases in which the causes are not very clear and the possible anatomical alterations with which it is associated can be both cause or consequence of it. In the case of mental disorders, this is done a lot, since it is often not very clear if the biochemical imbalances associated with some disorders are what produce the symptoms or are a product of a dynamic of interaction between the person and their environment.

In this way, the concept of disorder simply serves to describe the signs of the state of abnormality and alteration of health in which a person is found, while that of illness indicates a causal relationship, because it includes the specific causes (etiology) of the lack of health.

Related article: "The 16 most common mental disorders"

The disorder as the result of an interaction dynamic

And what is the other way of understanding the meaning of the term disorder when talking about mental disorders? Well, precisely, it has to do with emphasizing the way in which the individual has related and continues to relate to the environment, rather than understanding something static, related to genetics, disease and injuries. A disorder can actually be the consequence of the fact of having been involved in a set of situations linked to the context in which we live and that have caused us to enter into a dynamic of behaviors that harm our health.

The cause of the disorder, therefore, need not be reduced to a very specific part of the brain that functions abnormally, but could be divided into all those actions that make up a cycle: we act in a way because we perceive things in a way because we act in one way, etc.

So, the frame of reference that helps us know what we mean when we talk about what a disorder is: Are the disorders discovered by the human being, or are they built by it? Answering this question is not easy, and the nature of this debate has to do with both science and philosophy.

Libbie's story: Larsen syndrome, a rare genetic disorder (May 2021).

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