Definition of Cure vs Managing Disease | Medical Treatment

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What is the Difference Between Curing, Managing, and Treating a Condition?

There’s some confusion about the difference between a treatment and a cure. For example, in a Washington Post fact-checking article, two sources use the terms “cure” and “treatment” interchangeably. The group Vote for Cures says, “10,000 diseases, only 500 cures.” Later on in the article, the Post quotes FasterCures, an affiliate of the Milken Institute, as saying, “10,000 diseases. Only 500 treatments. We have work to do.”

This is important because the Post was fact-checking the claim that there are 10,000 diseases and 500 cures. If the claim that there are 500 treatments gets thrown into the mix, then we’re talking about something else entirely. A world where there are only 500 treatments for 10,000 diseases is a scary one indeed.

What’s the difference between a treatment, a cure, and symptom management, and why does it matter? To properly pin this down, we have to start with the definition of a cure.  


What is the Definition of a Cure?

A “cure” is a remedy for a disease that eliminates the disease. A cure can work on an individual level or on a group level. If a cure works on a group level to the extent that there is no trace of disease left in the population, we can say the cure eradicated the disease.

In a Psychology Today article on the difference between healing and curing, psychologist Lissa Rankin defines curing as “eliminating all evidence of disease.” This definition is problematic for one reason: no “evidence” of a disease doesn’t always mean the disease is gone. Typically when we say “cure”, we’re referring to the elimination of a disease, and not just the suppression of its symptoms.  

However, the medical/scientific community speaks in terms of evidence, and complete certainty is rare. True cures that eliminate diseases are also rare. This is probably the reason why no real doctors weigh in on the Quora question, “What is the difference between a cure and a treatment?” One responder points out that the majority of medical dictionaries don’t define “cure.” Still, for our purposes, we’ll rely on the Merriam-Webster definition of cure, which is “recovery or relief from a disease,” or, “a complete or permanent solution or remedy.”   

Can Diseases or Illnesses be Cured?

Some diseases or illnesses can be cured. According to Katherine J. Wu, a Harvard Ph.D. candidate, we could cure a fifth of the world’s population of infectious tropical diseases, such as “river blindness,” a painful parasitic disease that eventually causes irreversible blindness. Satoshi Omura and William Campbell won the Nobel Prize in 2015 for inventing a “miracle drug” called ivermectin to treat and cure river blindness. The drug can completely rid sufferers of the disease and can stop them from going blind if they take it soon enough.

Malaria is a curable disease that kills a child every 45 seconds, with 90 percent of the deaths occurring in Africa, where mosquitoes transmit malaria parasites. The CDC points out that curing malaria is a matter of diagnosing and treating the disease promptly and correctly.  

Lyme disease, which is another insect-borne illness, is also curable. According to Daniel Kuritzkes, MD, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, “Lyme disease is always curable.” The disease affects some 30,000 people per year, but like malaria, it can be cured with proper diagnosis and treatment.

Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases reveals that the most common kind of arthritic disease, gout, is a curable disease. There are a number of curable diseases. However, like tuberculosis, for one reason or another, many curable diseases continue to be a problem.   

What is an Incurable Condition?

People often hear the word ‘incurable’ and think ‘terminal,’ but that’s not what the word means.

An incurable condition is a health issue the medical community has not been able to find a solution to yet. For example, a person’s leg could be badly broken and shattered to the extent that no amount of surgery can heal it. This person would have an incurable condition that requires them to get a prosthetic leg. This is different than an incurable, chronic disease — an illness that affects the person for a prolonged period of time, but does not necessarily cause death. Wikipedia provides a long list of incurable diseases, but there’s no indication as to which of them are fatal conditions.

Various forms of mental illness, such as schizophrenia, are incurable but they don’t cause death. Additionally, many skin conditions, such as psoriasis and eczema, are treatable with topical creams and oils, but are not curable conditions.

Moreover, if we’re talking about mental illnesses that qualify as an incurable ‘disorder’ or condition, there’s a difference between an incurable disorder and a chronic disease. John Cooper of the World Psychiatry Association points out that “disorders are different from diseases,” in that “currently recognised disorders are no more than symptom clusters.”

Many incurable or chronic conditions have treatment options that can greatly alleviate symptoms. Asthma, HIV, epilepsy, and various forms of visual impairment, such as glaucoma, are all considered incurable. However, treatments are available that can ameliorate or slow the onset of symptoms.       


What is the Medical Definition of a Treatment or Symptom Management?

The word “treatment” has several definitions: “the management and care of a patient”, or, “the combating of a disease or disorder.” Doctors and nurses engage in both kinds of treatment; if you’re treating a disease, you’re fighting it; if you’re treating the symptoms, you’re performing symptom management.


The National Cancer Institute (NCI) defines symptom management as “Care given to improve the quality of life of patients who have a serious or life-threatening disease.” According to NCI, the goal of symptom management is to “prevent or treat as early as possible the symptoms of a disease, side effects caused by treatment of a disease, and psychological, social, and spiritual problems related to a disease or its treatment.

The NCI defines symptom management in terms of “serious or life-threatening disease” because the NCI’s focus is cancer. However, doctors, nurses, and psychiatrists help patients manage symptoms for conditions that aren’t necessarily life-threatening. For example, a doctor may prescribe a sleeping pill to a patient with insomnia. The prescription is a form of symptom management because it’s not an attempt to treat the root cause of insomnia, which may be psychological, physical, or genetic.

In 2018, the FDA approved an oral CBD solution for the treatment of seizures caused by two rare and severe forms of epilepsy. Since seizures are a symptom of epilepsy, this cannabidiol solution helps to manage the symptoms of an incurable disease. Cannabidiol (CBD) is one of the active compounds in cannabis plants, and the medical community is starting to look more seriously at using CBD as a therapeutic treatment solution for a variety of illnesses.      


What Does Remission Mean?

When it comes to chronic diseases or conditions, remission occurs when the symptoms or problems go away. There are stages of remission and doctors consider it an ongoing state of amelioration — a de-escalation or lessening of the problem. Simply put, remission is relief from symptoms; however, it’s not meant to signify that a disease or condition is cured.   

Common Alternatives for Symptom Management

People often seek out their own symptom management solutions in addition to, or instead of, pharmaceutical prescriptions. A person suffering from anxiety and insomnia can try mindfulness meditation, which could help alleviate mental stress. Since chronic pain is a complex condition, people often try a variety of alternative treatment options, including acupuncture, therapy, exercise, supplements, vitamins, chiropractic care, and sometimes even cannabis.     

CBD is becoming a popular alternative for symptom management, though it hasn’t yet been approved by the FDA. In a study, about 62 percent of CBD users employed some form of CBD in an attempt to treat medical conditions such as pain, anxiety, and depression.

CBD can be derived from hemp, which is a legal type of cannabis that doesn’t cause the user to get high. People can make their own CBD products, but many choose to rely on professionally produced products that have the highest stamp of quality.

CBD is not a treatment or cure for disorders or diseases, and, until more research is done and studies are completed, it shouldn’t be considered one. Nevertheless, CBD has shown promise and potential for symptom management and relief; only time will truly tell.


What is the Difference Between Disease and Disorder?

As mentioned earlier, there’s a difference between disease and disorder, but what, exactly, is the difference?

According to Merriam-Webster, a disease is a condition that “impairs normal functioning and is typically manifested by distinguishing signs and symptoms.” A disorder, on the other hand, has to do with abnormal versus normal functioning of the body.

Conduction disorders are a good example of how abnormal functions may or may not manifest. One type of conduction disorder, a “bundle branch block”, causes electrical impulses to take a different path through the heart’s ventricles. However, it’s possible for someone with a bundle branch block to experience an absence of symptoms their entire life. Even if it is asymptomatic, a bundle branch block is still considered a “disorder” because this is not the way most people’s ventricles conduct electricity.

Therefore, a disorder is a defect or disturbance in function that may or may not manifest itself through distinguishing signs or symptoms. As such, a person could have a disorder their whole life and no one would know it. When symptoms are present, doctors can look for a cure or treatment for diseases; with disorders, they can try medications, therapies, implants, or surgery to try and put things back in order.

In either case, symptom management is necessary for persistent conditions with symptoms that are tough to bear. CBD oil has shown promise as an additional or substitute method of managing symptoms of multiple diseases and disorders. With more research and testing, CBD may soon be accepted as a medical treatment option, or even as an alternative treatment.      

What is Comorbidity?

Comorbidity occurs when a person is suffering from more than one condition at the same time. Sometimes, but not always, these conditions can play off of and worsen each other. Comorbid insomnia and sleep anxiety, for example, can create a snowballing, downward spiral of sleep loss. Other conditions are commonly experienced comorbidly. For example, about 60 percent of people who suffer from anxiety also suffer from depression. Many people who suffer from mental illness also suffer from a substance use disorder. Chronic pain and chronic fatigue comorbidity is also a problem.

Like disease or disorder, comorbidity is a problem anyone can experience during their lifetime because of the world we live in and the genes we’re given. There may not be 10,000 cures for every 10,000 diseases, but there are many treatments that can help make symptoms easier to bear.

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