What is a Chronic Condition? - Definition & Management

Instructor: Rachel Torrens
Whether it is an emergency situation or a lifelong health problem, an illness is draining. In this lesson, you will learn about the differences between acute and chronic conditions, along with examples of both.

Similar, but Totally Different: Chronic versus Acute Conditions

Imagine that you love to run short distances. You love the burst of energy required to move you down the track in a blur of speed. Now imagine that you still love to run, but this time it is the rhythmic sound of feet hitting the pavement mile after mile. In both cases you are a runner, but in the first you're a sprinter and in the second you're a marathon runner. Sprints. Marathons. Are the two the same? No, but they are related. Well, the same can be said of chronic and acute illnesses.

A chronic condition is any health-related illness that requires ongoing management over an extended period of time, usually longer than 3 months. This differs from an acute condition, which is a short, time-limited illness. An acute condition can occur quickly, and most often can be treated and resolved. For example, year-round allergies would be considered a chronic condition, whereas a sinus infection would be an acute illness.

Now, keep in mind that a condition may change from acute to chronic. For example, a person may injure his back by falling off a ladder. At first, the patient would be taken for emergency care for the acute back injury. However, once the injury is resolved, the person may still have lasting pain. This lasting pain would be considered a chronic condition that needs ongoing treatment.

Likewise, a chronic condition can lead to an acute condition. For example, if a person has high cholesterol, a chronic condition, and does not take medications or make lifestyle changes to control this condition, he may well experience a heart attack, which is an acute condition. So, even though the two are completely different, they are related. Kind of like sprinting and marathon-running.

Having high cholesterol is a chronic condition, usually lasting decades. High cholesterol can lead to an acute condition, such as a heart attack that occurs because blood flow is cut off to part of the heart.
Chronic versus acute illness diagram

One final note before moving on: chronic disease, chronic illness, and chronic condition are all terms currently used interchangeably to describe types of ailments that are on the rise. As the population ages and the average life span extends, more people will experience long-term health problems. The Center for Disease Control currently states that over 80 percent of the U.S.'s health care costs are devoted to the management of chronic diseases. The terminology used to define these extended health issues can be ambiguous. Thus, controversy surrounds these three terms, what each means, and what exactly is to be done about chronic health problems.

Management of a Chronic Condition

Most often, chronic conditions cannot be cured. There is no pill a person can take to make the problem go away forever. So, what can be done? Luckily, quite a bit can be done to control the condition. This can include taking medications aimed at relieving the symptoms of the problem. While these medications do not address the root cause of the condition, they can relieve associated symptoms. For example, you have seasonal allergies. You take an allergy medication that helps to reduce watery eyes and sneezing. You have solved the symptoms the condition causes, but you have not eradicated the root problem.

Again, this differs from an acute condition in which medications can usually cure the root cause. For example, you have pneumonia. You take an antibiotic, and the germs causing the pneumonia are destroyed. In this situation, the root cause is addressed.

Other forms of chronic condition management include behavioral modifications, physical therapy, occupational therapy, or massage therapy. Behavioral modifications mean making changes in your behavior to help control your condition. For example, exercising and avoiding sugary foods would be beneficial behavioral modifications for someone with high cholesterol.

For people with arthritis and other chronic conditions, physical therapy plays a large role in managing the condition.
Physical therapy image

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