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What is Idiopathic?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Idiopathic is a medical term which is used to describe a condition which has no known cause. When a patient's case is described as idiopathic, it means that the doctor does not know what caused the condition. This can be problematic, since sometimes identifying the cause of a condition is part of the process of finding an appropriate treatment. Idiopathic conditions can also be very frustrating for medical personnel, as lack of understanding about a cause makes it hard to prevent recurrence of the condition or future cases in other patients.

Some people joke that idiopathic comes from “idiot,” as in “the doctor is such an idiot that he or she can't even figure out what caused this.” In fact, the term comes from the Greek words idios, or “one's own,” and pathos, or suffering. While it might be tempting to blame the doctor for not being able to figure out what is causing a medical problem, some diseases really do seem to arise spontaneously, with no known explanation or cause, and berating the doctor will not be very productive.

This term is part of a family of medical terms in the field of nosology, the classification of diseases. The etiology or cause of a disease is often included in discussions of how the disease is to be treated. An iatrogenic condition, for example, is a disease caused by a doctor, either indirectly in the sense of debilitating side effects, or directly in the sense of an act of medical malpractice which results in harm to the patient. Since the cause of an iatrogenic condition is known, it is easier to treat, because the cause can be addressed and corrected in the hopes of resolving the medical problem.

Sometimes, the cause of a condition which appears to be idiopathic in nature is simply obscure, rather than unknown. Doctors with puzzling medical cases often consult their colleagues, sometimes turning to the advice of an expert who has experience with the condition being treated. Such consultations sometimes unveil additional information which could be used to root out the cause of the disease, which may assist in treatment.

A disease may be idiopathic in one person, but explainable in another. This can lead to confusion when patients exchange information about diagnosis and treatment, as a patient may not understand why someone else is being treated with something which has not been offered to him or her.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon160014 — On Mar 14, 2011

My friend has a very swollen right foot and left hand. She has been to the doctor several times in the past two years with no results. They have checked thyroid function and given her edema pills; have also tried progesterone because the foot began swelling after she stopped using birth control shots five years ago. If you have any suggestions, we're open. She is maybe 10-15 pounds overweight and also stopped all dairy products two years ago for stomach upset. thank you.

By anon85323 — On May 19, 2010

I was told I could have RSD based on x-ray, MRI and my description of the pain. I have slight warmth in my left toe sometimes (I fell and hurt my foot) but usually when that happens my toe feels physically warm to others, whereas my entire left foot has been colder than the right since the injury.

The pins and needles explain the majority of the pain I feel -- and soreness, sometimes stiffness in the ankle and ball of the foot. Does this sound like RDS? And what are the proper tests to find out?

By anon33334 — On Jun 04, 2009

I have been told I have RSD. I have several old breaks in the neck, jaw, nose, hip, back and foot now I developed this horrible burning hot feeling like someone is putting hot liquid through my body and my face feels like pins and needles and it moves down my arms and my left side of my mouth droops for a bit and goes numb. Does anyone have an idea of what is going on? It started after the dog was playing and knocked my in the face.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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