What is Idiopathic?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Idiopathic is a medical term which is used to describe a condition which has no known cause. When a patient's case is described as idiopathic, it means that the doctor does not know what caused the condition. This can be problematic, since sometimes identifying the cause of a condition is part of the process of finding an appropriate treatment. Idiopathic conditions can also be very frustrating for medical personnel, as lack of understanding about a cause makes it hard to prevent recurrence of the condition or future cases in other patients.

Doctors may consult with their colleagues when faced with a puzzling idiopathic condition.
Doctors may consult with their colleagues when faced with a puzzling idiopathic condition.

Some people joke that idiopathic comes from “idiot,” as in “the doctor is such an idiot that he or she can't even figure out what caused this.” In fact, the term comes from the Greek words idios, or “one's own,” and pathos, or suffering. While it might be tempting to blame the doctor for not being able to figure out what is causing a medical problem, some diseases really do seem to arise spontaneously, with no known explanation or cause, and berating the doctor will not be very productive.

Doctors refer to patient conditions that don't have a known cause as "idiopathic."
Doctors refer to patient conditions that don't have a known cause as "idiopathic."

This term is part of a family of medical terms in the field of nosology, the classification of diseases. The etiology or cause of a disease is often included in discussions of how the disease is to be treated. An iatrogenic condition, for example, is a disease caused by a doctor, either indirectly in the sense of debilitating side effects, or directly in the sense of an act of medical malpractice which results in harm to the patient. Since the cause of an iatrogenic condition is known, it is easier to treat, because the cause can be addressed and corrected in the hopes of resolving the medical problem.

Sometimes, the cause of a condition which appears to be idiopathic in nature is simply obscure, rather than unknown. Doctors with puzzling medical cases often consult their colleagues, sometimes turning to the advice of an expert who has experience with the condition being treated. Such consultations sometimes unveil additional information which could be used to root out the cause of the disease, which may assist in treatment.

A disease may be idiopathic in one person, but explainable in another. This can lead to confusion when patients exchange information about diagnosis and treatment, as a patient may not understand why someone else is being treated with something which has not been offered to him or her.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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