When an illness has no cure, treatment becomes the focus of care. While some patients may find this frustrating, it does have its benefits. Treatment can help manage your symptoms and reduce their impact on your life. But how do you know if your treatment is working? How will you know when it’s time to switch from one treatment to another? If a doctor can’t cure you but can help manage your symptoms, then what does that mean for you? And what does that imply about our current state of knowledge as a society when it comes to certain illnesses or conditions? Let’s take a look at what we currently know about some common medical conditions:
According to the World Health Organization, depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide with more than 350 million people affected. In fact, for many people, depression is a chronic condition that can occur at any point in life and can be triggered by a wide range of circumstances. While the cause of depression is not fully understood, it’s known that certain parts of the brain become less active when someone is depressed. Some researchers believe that this change occurs as a result of a chemical imbalance in the body, while others theorize that certain life experiences, such as trauma, can lead to depression. Depression is characterized by feelings of sadness, worthlessness, and changes in appetite and sleep. These feelings and changes can be severe enough to disrupt a person’s ability to work, go to school, have healthy relationships, and take care of themselves.
Anxiety is a feeling of unease, such as worry or fear, that’s often accompanied by physical symptoms, such as a racing heart, sweating, or shakiness. It is often caused by stressful situations, such as a death in the family, a job change, or money problems. Anxiety disorders are a group of mental illnesses that cause people to have excessive fear or worry. They are the most common mental illnesses in the United States. Many people have occasional anxiety and worry, but people with an anxiety disorder have these feelings much of the time. Anxiety disorders often begin during adolescence or early adulthood, although they can happen at any age. They are chronic conditions that often last for years and can interfere with daily activities such as work, school, and relationships.
PTSD and OCD
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that can develop after exposure to a terrifying event, such as sexual assault, warfare, traffic collisions, or other accidents. Individuals with PTSD often re-experience the trauma through nightmares and flashbacks, have difficulty sleeping, and may be on edge and easily startled. People with PTSD may also suffer from self-destructive thoughts, feel detached or have a reduced ability to feel emotions, including love, and have difficulties maintaining relationships. Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is characterized by unwanted, recurrent thoughts (obsessions) and by repetitive behaviors (compulsions). Common obsessions include fear of contamination, doubts about whether one has performed some task (e.g., turning off the gas or closing the door) correctly, and thoughts about getting harmed by others. Compulsions are ritualistic behaviors aimed at reducing the associated anxiety caused by obsessions.
An autoimmune disease occurs when the immune system mistakenly attacks and destroys healthy cells in the body. The immune system cannot tell the difference between healthy cells and foreign substances, such as germs and bacteria. In autoimmune diseases, the immune system targets and attacks the body’s organs and tissues as though they were foreign substances. This results in inflammation and damage to body tissues. There are more than 80 autoimmune diseases, each affecting different parts of the body. Examples of autoimmune disorders include rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, psoriasis, and type 1 diabetes. Autoimmune disorders can be challenging to diagnose and can have serious health consequences if left untreated.
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a disease of the central nervous system (CNS). The CNS is made up of the brain and spinal cord. It is responsible for controlling all the functions of the body, such as movement, hearing, metabolism, vision, and sensation. MS occurs when the immune system attacks the myelin, which is the protective covering around the nerves. Myelin is similar to the rubber covering around electrical wires. When it is damaged, the messages traveling along the nerves are slowed or blocked, causing a variety of neurological symptoms. People with MS experience a wide range of health outcomes, from no problems to very serious and permanent disabilities. MS symptoms can be unpredictable and can change over time. Symptoms often come and go, with periods of remission between flare-ups.
Muscular dystrophy is a group of rare diseases that cause progressive weakness and damage to the muscles. It is a genetic condition, meaning it is inherited and can affect both men and women. There are many types of muscular dystrophy and they are each named after the age of diagnosis, the type of muscle weakness, and their effect on the body. Symptoms usually start when a person is in their teens or 20s and can include difficulty walking, loss of feeling in the feet, and a drop in body temperature in the legs and hands. Muscular dystrophy is not contagious. The muscles most often affected by muscular dystrophy are those that are used for movement, such as those in the legs, arms, shoulders, and hips. The muscles become weaker as time goes on and may become damaged or break down. They may also become larger than normal (called hypertrophy). Diseases of the muscles are usually diagnosed in childhood, adolescence, or early adulthood. Most people with these diseases live into their 40s and 50s.
ALS and Breathing Problems
ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) is a rare and progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the spinal cord and brain. This causes muscle weakness and difficulty with everyday tasks like speaking and swallowing. ALS is a complex disease that can be difficult to diagnose. The progression of the disease is unique for each person. Most people who are diagnosed with ALS live three to five years after their diagnosis. Management and treatment of these patients can be challenging. Patients with ALS may experience dyspnea, particularly at night. This is a common complaint for ALS patients and can be treated successfully with non-pharmacological interventions, such as chest-thorax synchrony and positive airway pressure.
There is no cure for many of the diseases we’ve discussed here, and many doctors are still trying to find out why they occur and how to treat them properly. Some of these illnesses affect millions of people worldwide, and yet the only real treatment available is often the long-term use of antidepressants or anti-anxiety drugs. As a patient, you have a choice. You can let these conditions control your life, or you can make informed decisions that help you manage your symptoms. That’s not to say that you should ignore your doctors’ advice or stop taking your medication. But by understanding your condition, you can make sure that you’re living your best life with this illness.