What is Phthisis?

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  • Written By: Emma Lloyd
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 13 November 2018
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The word phthisis, pronounced “TIE-sis,” is an ancient Greek medical term that was used to describe any disease of which the main symptom is atrophy or wasting of some kind. While historically, the term was applied to a disease that caused wasting in any part of the body, it is much less all-encompassing in modern Western medicine. Now, it is commonly used only in reference to tuberculosis or ocular atrophy. The use of the term is uncommon even in the context of tuberculosis, however, and its most common use is now to describe atrophy of the eye.

Phthisis pulmonalis is another name for pulmonary tuberculosis. Throughout history, tuberculosis has also been referred to as consumption, scrofula, wasting disease, white plague, and king’s evil. In the latter case, the name was applied due to an 11th century belief that a person with the disease could be cured if he or she was touched by Edward the Confessor, the Anglo-Saxon English king of that period.


In modern times, the disease is known simply as tuberculosis. This sometimes fatal lung infection is caused by a bacterium called Mycobacterium tuberculosis. It is commonly spread through contact with the bacteria, which is sneezed or coughed up by someone with the disease. Symptoms include chronic coughing, weight loss, fever, and night sweats; many people also cough up bloody sputum from deep within the lungs. Treatment requires courses of multiple antibiotics, and it often takes a long time to cure, with patients taking medication for six to 12 months.

Phthisis bulbi describes the shrunken appearance of an eye that has wasted as a result of ocular disease or injury. A wasted eye typically does not function. This condition may develop as a result of a range of different injuries or diseases, including severe infection or inflammation, radiation, retinoblastoma cancer, and chronic retinal detachment. The eye may become scarred or abnormally shaped, and eventually the entire eyeball atrophies, with the patient no longer able to see out of it.

There is no treatment for this eye condition. Once the eyeball has atrophied to this extent, nothing can save even partial vision in the eye. If it is chronically painful, the eye may be removed and replaced with a prosthesis. It may also be replaced for cosmetic reasons, as the atrophied eyeball is misshapen and may also cause changes to the eye socket itself.


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Post 3

Phthisis bulbi sounds pretty darn scary, and even scarier because there isn't any treatment. Also, I can't believe that so many different things can cause it: an eye injury, infection, cancer or radiation. That's a lot of things that can cause ocular atrophy!

I can't imagine losing my vision in one eye, and also having to deal with a misshapen eye and possibly eye socket. I think if something like this happened to me I would probably opt to just have the eye removed (let's hope I never have to make that choice though.)

Post 2

@SZapper - It definitely sounds like the term "phthisis" has evolved quite a lot over the years.

I've personally never heard the term before, and I've definitely never heard of tuberculosis being referred to as Phthisis pulmonalis. Usually I've heard it called tuberculosis, TB, or consumption (that one is courtesy of some classic books I had to read in high school.) I had no idea tuberculosis ever had any other official name or so many nicknames.

However, I've also never known anyone that's had tuberculosis, because not that many people in the United States get symptoms of tuberculosis these days. I can see why people stopped calling it Phthisis pulmonalis though, tuberculosis or TB is much shorter.

Post 1

When I took medical terminology, I learned that most medical words, like phthisis, come from either Latin or Greek. I always thought the medical establishment should just pick one language or the other, but they've been using both for so long I doubt its going to change.

Anyway, I think it's interesting how even medical terms can evolve over the years. The phthisis definition seems to have evolved from being fairly broad to being much, much more specific. It used to mean any disease that involved atrophy, but now it pretty much only refers to atrophy of the eye.

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