Medical Disorders Articles, Research & Resources

Leigh Morgan
Leigh Morgan
Last updated:
Erin L. George, MFT
Erin L. George, MFT
Medical editor

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What Are Medical Disorders?

In medical terms, a medical disorder is any change in the normal functioning of the body or mind. (1) Disorders have a wide variety of causes, including physical trauma, genetic mutations, and disease. For example, trauma to the head can cause a disturbance in brain function. Depending on the location of the injury, an individual with head trauma may lose their vision, have trouble speaking, or develop some type of cognitive impairment. (2)
Genetic mutations occur when the cells divide, causing changes in a person's DNA sequence (3). DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, carries genetic material. Therefore, any change to a person's DNA sequence may affect how they look, how they behave, or what disorders they develop. Hundreds of diseases have the potential to cause a change in the normal functioning of the mind or body. For example, heart disease sometimes leads to heart failure, which prevents the heart from pumping normally. (4)

Medical issues have a major impact on a person's mental health, finances, and family relationships. In some cases, a disorder is so severe that it prevents an individual from working, making it difficult to pay for housing, food, and other necessities. Financial difficulties may lead to high levels of stress, causing the person to be irritable, depressed, or anxious.

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Common Medical Disorders in Women

Heart disease, breast cancer, and osteoporosis are some of the most common conditions affecting women in the United States. (5) Heart disease is a broad term that refers to several distinct conditions. One of the most common is coronary artery disease (CAD), which develops when a sticky substance called plaque builds up on the walls of the arteries.
Breast cancer develops when cells in the breast tissue start dividing uncontrollably. (6) This type of cancer usually begins in the lobules or the ducts. Lobules are the site of milk production, while ducts are designed to carry milk from the lobules to the nipples. If breast cancer isn't diagnosed quickly, it can spread to other parts of the body.

Osteoporosis is caused by changes in bone density, bone structure, and bone strength. (7) Although it can develop in anyone, women are at greater risk because they naturally have smaller bones than men. Estrogen plays a role in maintaining bone and muscle mass, so the risk of osteoporosis is especially high during menopause and the few years immediately preceding menopause.

These conditions, like other disorders, have a big impact on a woman's mental health. Some women develop depression after having a heart attack or going into heart failure. (8) Women with breast cancer may develop anxiety due to their concerns about treatment side effects or the risk of relapse. Osteoporosis increases the risk of fractures, which may cause some women to worry about falling.

Common Medical Disorders in Men

Heart disease, erectile dysfunction, and low testosterone are some of the most common health conditions in men. (9) A man with heart disease may have a heart attack, develop heart failure, or experience dangerous changes in his heart rhythm. Heart disease is so common among men that it's responsible for approximately 25% of all male deaths each year. (10) Many men experience no symptoms until they have a heart attack or other serious complication.
Erectile dysfunction (ED) makes it difficult to achieve and maintain an erection. (11) Men with this condition may also experience a loss of libido (sex drive). One of the most common physical causes of ED is heart disease, which may affect blood flow to the penis. If the penis doesn't get enough blood, it's difficult to achieve an erection. ED may also occur in men with multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease, and other neurological disorders. These disorders affect the way the brain perceives sexual stimuli, which may make it difficult to have a lasting erection. (12)

Low testosterone, commonly called "low T," is characterized by a lower-than-normal level of testosterone in a man's blood. Testosterone is a hormone that plays a role in sperm production, sexual function, and the maintenance of adequate bone density. (13) Men with low testosterone may experience ED, reduced libido, hot flashes, depressed mood, and other symptoms. Low T is more common in older men, as well as men with obesity, obstructive sleep apnea, and Type 2 diabetes that isn't well-controlled.

How Are Medical Disorders Diagnosed?

Healthcare professionals use a variety of tools to diagnose medical problems. In many cases, a physical examination is the first step in making a diagnosis. This type of exam involves performing a visual inspection of the patient, checking their reflexes, pressing on certain parts of the body, and listening to the patient's heart, lungs, and bowel sounds. (14) A physical examination can help a doctor or other healthcare professional determine if a patient has signs of a specific medical disorder, such as a heart murmur or a raised rash on the skin.
If the physical examination doesn't yield a diagnosis, the individual may need blood tests or imaging studies to gather more information. Blood tests check for organ damage, look for abnormalities in the cells, and help identify evidence of certain chemical imbalances. Although there are hundreds of blood tests available, the basic metabolic panel and complete blood count are two of the most common. (15)

The basic metabolic panel gives healthcare professionals important information about a patient's organ function and electrolyte levels. It can also help diagnose diabetes, as it measures the amount of glucose (blood sugar) in the blood. A complete blood count (CBC) counts the number of white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets in a sample. It also measures hemoglobin, hematocrit, and mean corpuscular volume (MCV). Hemoglobin is a protein that carries oxygen, while hematocrit measures the proportion of red blood cells compared to other blood components. MCV tells healthcare professionals the average size of a patient's red blood cells. The CBC is useful for diagnosing blood disorders, anemia, certain types of cancers, and other conditions.

Imaging studies use ultrasound, X-rays, radioactive substances, and other forms of energy to take detailed pictures of the structures inside a person's body. (16) They're used to diagnose a wide range of conditions, including cancer, osteoporosis, and gallstones.

When to Visit a Medical Professional

Regular medical care makes it possible to prevent some disorders. Even if a disorder can't be prevented, regular doctor visits can lead to early detection, giving the individual a chance to start treatment before the symptoms worsen. Therefore, men and women should see a physician or other healthcare professional at least once per year. A primary care provider can conduct a physical exam, order laboratory tests or imaging studies, and make referrals to medical specialists as needed. (17)
More frequent visits may be necessary if an individual develops concerning symptoms. Sudden weight loss is cause for concern, as it could indicate the presence of diabetes, liver disease, or a thyroid disorder. (18) Anyone who loses 10% of their body weight without trying should schedule an appointment. Severe pain is also a good reason to visit a medical professional, especially if it occurs in the pelvis, abdomen, or chest. An individual should also see a medical professional if they develop shortness of breath, changes in bowel or bladder function, or a persistent, high fever.

Some disorders are psychological in nature, so it's also important to watch for confusion, memory loss, and other changes in mental functioning. If any of these symptoms occur, a primary care provider may refer the individual to a psychiatrist for an in-depth psychological assessment. The psychiatrist is likely to take a thorough medical and mental health history. (19) They may also order imaging studies to rule out brain tumors, increased intracranial pressure, and other physical causes of the individual's symptoms.