Hi, everybody! I’m PalMD (although my byline says differently), and you may remember me from such other blogs as WhiteCoat Underground and denialism. The folks around here were kind enough to give me a regular gig dispensing my brand of medical information transfer, and I’m going to start out with a basic question: what is a disease?
Human beings have some pretty powerful pattern-recognition software—so powerful that it can over-perceive patterns, sometimes causing us to confuse randomness for order. This impacts all aspects of human thought, including medicine.
In the realm of medicine, we define disease as alterations in physiology, anatomy, biochemistry, etc. that causes significant discomfort, disability, or increased risk for same. OK, really, I sort of cobbled that together, but you get the idea — a disease is a definable alteration in normal function. A corollary to this is that to define a disease, we must know something about what is normal (a discussion for another time). A related term is syndrome, which we usually define as “a set of signs or a series of events occurring together that often point to a single disease or condition as the cause.” What this effectively means is that we use the word “syndrome” to indicate a set of abnormal findings without a clear cause, and “disease” to indicate the abnormal findings with a putative cause.
(All this verbosity is leading somewhere—I promise.)
“Syndrome” is sometimes a useful place-holder term for a nascent disease. Sometimes, however, a set of signs and symptoms is simply coincidence that we erroneously recognize as a pattern.
In popular culture there’s a lot of talk about “overmedicalization”, that is, calling things abnormal that are simply slight variations in the wide range of human health. You’ll find people who argue that treating ADHD with medications is tantamount to abuse (and lost in the hysteria is the real possibility that we are over-medicating some kids). You’ll also find groups that argue that deafness or autism are simply “other”, but not “abnormal” as such. This, of course, is wrong. While a deaf or autistic person is just as valuable as a “normal”, and may have just as much to contribute to society, they are very far from normal human health.
And now you have the proper background to approach the problem of fake diseases.