What Is the Difference between Disability and Impairment?

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  • Written By: Jennifer Long
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 12 September 2019
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Disability and impairment are two different terms that are often confused and can both be used to describe a patient’s medical situation. Impairment is an abnormality or loss of a specific function used by the body or mind to complete tasks. A disability is a complete loss of the ability to perform a certain task.

In medicine, disability and impairment are often used together. A person can have one or both causing interference in daily life. Most commonly, a person can have impairment in one area that is caused by a disability in another area. For example, severe damage to the spine can be a disabling problem. This damage, in turn, can lead to impairment in the movement or proper function of the arms, legs, or neck.

People who suffer from disability or impairment often notice that medical records show both terms being used. This is often normal. Doctors refer to impairment when a person’s abilities to perform tasks are altered but full tasks can still be completed. A complete interruption in a task that cannot be performed without the help of another person will be referred to as a disability.

Disability and impairment can cause equal effects on a person’s ability to live a normal life. They both create a situation that causes physical or mental difficulties. Both instances can be uncomfortable, confusing, painful, and more. It can create a stressful situation when impairment or a disability interferes with daily tasks.


Diagnosis for disability and impairment can be difficult. Each individual patient is assessed by doctors. A disability almost always begins with impairment, while impairments can be due to an injury or a condition.

Repeated back injuries or excessive stress on the spine begins as an impairment that can progress into a disability when permanent or severe damage occurs. Serious conditions, such as lupus or multiple sclerosis, are progressive. They start as impairments and progress into full disabilities.

Disability and impairment treatments vary greatly. Typically, medications to manage symptoms, such as pain and inflammation, are prescribed if necessary. Other medications to treat conditions may also be needed. Physical therapy helps with mobility issues and can help patients learn how to function despite impairment or disability. Doctors work to create a comprehensive treatment plan.

Proper diagnosis of disability and impairment is important and treatments will be dependent on whether a problem is impairment or a disability. It will also depend on the severity of the condition. Impairment may not be permanent if proper care is received. With a disability, however, treatment does not generally lead to a restoration of function. Treating a disability is more about helping disabled patients gain the ability to compensate for missing functions and live with their disability.


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