Idiopathic: what does the state of idiopathy mean?

The term idiopathic qualifies in medicine as a disease that has no known cause. Thus, it is defined in itself, without being the consequence or complication of another pathology.

What is an idiopathic state?

The word idiopathic belongs to the lexical field of nosography, a discipline that classifies diseases. This word comes from the ancient Greek, idiopatheia, which means “disease that one experiences for oneself.”

In medical jargon, idiopathic is an adjective that most often describes a disease, a symptom, or a pathological condition, which has no causes updated by a diagnostic assessment, even thorough. A disease will be said to be “idiopathic” if it exists in itself, without being linked to another condition, by a link of cause or consequence.

As a result, an idiopathic pathology can only be treated symptomatically, that is, by treating the symptoms one by one, without trying to find their cause.

The antonym of the idiopathic term is “etiological”. An etiological disease is a disease whose cause is known.

Obviously, it will be easier for doctors to treat an etiological disease than an idiopathic disease. Being able to trace the cause allows the medicine to treat a pathology or condition more quickly and effectively. By treating only the symptoms, one cannot completely cure the patient, but relieve him temporarily.

What causes an idiopathic condition?

In medicine, as in philosophy, we can have to ask ourselves many existential questions, such as the “why?” or the “how?” about diseases that strike people, when we could never have anticipated by seeing, for example, their lifestyle or their medical history.

For example, colon or liver cancer can be triggered in a person who has an irreproachable lifestyle; while his neighbor or even his brother could lead a life of excess and never contract this same disease. Unfortunately, there is no known reason for all the pathologies that can occur in human beings, whether in the field of genetic inheritance or their way of life. This is the injustice of medicine.

Thus, a patient who asks his doctor: “Why did I catch this disease?”, in the case of an idiopathic disease, the doctor will, unfortunately, answer: “I do not know!”, even if this answer may seem shocking or unsatisfactory when one believes that medicine is an exact science.

What are the consequences of the idiopathic state?

When we do not know the causes of a disease, we can only treat its symptoms. Unlike an etiological disease (whose cause is known), it will not be possible to propose a specific treatment, which would be more effective than a simple symptomatic treatment.

Etiological treatment, in contrast, is the best response that can be offered to a patient. For example, in order to treat anemia, one may not find the cause of this disease, despite extensive investigation. The patient will then be treated with a simple iron medication, But this treatment will only be temporary and unsatisfactory since the cause is not found. However, anemia can also mean that the person is losing blood, which can be worrisome.

The doctor, by performing a fibroscopy (examination of the esophagus and stomach) will be able to reach a diagnosis going back to the cause of the anemia: a duodenal ulcer (in the stomach) that is causing the bleeding. The etiological treatment to be applied will then be an antacid drug to treat the ulcer, and thus stop bleeding and stop anemia.

Idiopathic treatment is therefore very disabling in the long term for the patient since he is not rid of his disease.

How to move from an idiopathic state to an etiological state?

This is the whole struggle of the medical profession, facing symptoms or diseases whose causes are often unknown. Doctors take days, sometimes weeks, and months to carry out medical analyses, assessments, and investigations to determine the causes of patients’ illnesses, which would allow them to finally treat them durably and definitively.

But, since a doctor is not a god, and medicine is not an exact science, sometimes we can only stop treating symptoms. Sometimes patients themselves find specific causes or treatments within themselves, seeking alternative medicine or psychological introspection.

Image Credit: Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko from

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