Monday, August 19, 2013

Why is it a Struggle to Define Chronic Illness?

If you were to approach someone on the street and ask them to tell you the difference between illness and health, you would likely receive a quick explanation about how health was the process of one's body working in the way in which it was designed to work, and illness is the absence of some intricate and essential factor in the body so that it can work most effectively.

When one begins to suffer the many symptoms and signs of illness, however, suddenly the importance of having a clear understanding of the difference between health and a chronic illness or condition is desired. The quest to understand if the illness is to be long-lasting is an emotional journey perhaps as much as diagnosing the illness itself.

Despite a lack of scientific answers, however, one still feels the need for validation of the pain he or she is feeling. A person who becomes chronically ill may recognize that not all answers about the disease are known, but an illness definition, which was formerly just a concept, is now a personal issue and there is an emotional need for medical professionals to value the patient's description of the pain experience. She wishes for someone to listen and diagnose the illness symptoms!

To define chronic illness may seem like a simple task, despite the fact that there are many types of chronic illness. It could be said it is the absence of health or the existence of pain or other unhealthy symptoms. But consider this: there are people who suffer many symptoms of illness who are still considered rather healthy individuals; they even look fine on the outside, unaware of the complexity of medical issues brewing in their bodies that have yet to reveal themselves.

So if one's appearance or "feel good" measurement doesn't work accurately to decipher the difference between health and illness what do we use to determine it?

The question may even be asked, "Can one be a healthy, chronically ill person?"

Derek Yak, presenter on the topic of "Health and Illness: The Definition of the World Health Organization" says that both societies and individuals have defined health in a variety of ways. Regardless of the efforts that to into creating credible, reasonable definitions, there will always be criticism.

Determining the health and illness rates for a country is an unreliable science. Do the statistics of our life expectancy or infant mortality rates determine which countries are healthiest? As groups try to remove the toys from McDonald's Happy Meals to ensure healthier food options for our children in the USA, other countries struggle just to find food. Though I have been known to look at the McDonalds calorie list, not every mom is looking up the McDonald's Happy Meal toy schedule. Most are telling their children to eat the apples-not the apple pie.

By expecting everyone to obtain some level of health, even those with illness, are we setting realistic goals? Defining the term of health and illness will always be a vague science based on poor methodology because each country will determine these factors in a variety of ways. And it's no secret that most countries will even emphasize their level of health (or illness) on purpose for international reasons.

This brings us once again to the question of "What is a chronic illness?"

Medically, chronic illness can be defined as a condition that is lasting longer than three months, according to the definition determined by the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics. This could include any physical state that takes away one's measure of health-or as the void of illness such as the autoimmune illness chronic fatigue syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, symptoms of end stage COPD, or even cancer.

The majority of people in the U.S.A usually seem to be--if not completely healthy--at least free from illness or disease. But appearance is far from what it seems, because nearly 1 in 2 American live with a kind of chronic pain, condition, or illness. This can include anything from chronic migraines to disabling back pain. This illness statistic can be found in the study, "Chronic Care in America: A 21st Century Challenge" by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Our society has firmly held the opinion that the commonly advertised medications will cure our illness or at least make all symptoms soon disappear. And we are told this is true: that we just need to follow the advice of the pharmaceutical companies and soon we will be as good as we used to be!

We are basically told that pain management does not mean "managing the pain" but removing the pain. Most patients consider treatments or medications failures if they do not stop the chronic pain or illness symptoms. Although the pharmaceutical companies that produce these medications relies that they will only lessen the pain or decrease the symptoms, their advertisement gives the impression of a true healing.

The World Health Organization (WHO) was established in the year 1948 and at that time the word health was given the definition as "being a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity." According to the online encyclopedia, Wikipedia, it defines the word illness as "a state of poor health." In fact, this source states that "Illness is sometimes considered a synonym for disease."

Some would argue that true health is more a state of mind--an attitude about life--than what your lab tests results may reveal.

This can be a sensitive issue, especially to those who live the healthiest life possible and still have a chronic illness. They don't like to hear, "Well, your illness is caused by stress." Some people are just genetically blessed with good health but may abuse their body with substances, stress, and more, and still remain healthy according to lab tests. And if these people do become ill? Well, were they predestined to have an illness or was it caused by the stress they put on their body?

This starts to move into what is considered the definition of social health; does the illness come before the stress or vice versa? There are hundreds if not thousands of social factors that determine health.

In conclusion, like many definitions in our society, depending on who you ask you will get a different answer. Chronic illness has its burdens and frustrations, but joy is a choice. I feel I can say this because I have lived with rheumatoid arthritis for nearly two decades and I have learned that no one can define or decide what it is that brings me joy.

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