List of Debilitating Diseases

Debilitating diseases are those that significantly interfere with the activities of daily living. While disorders of any organ system can hinder daily living to some extent, diseases that significantly hamper the capacity for physical activity tend to be most debilitating. People with severely restricted physical capabilities typically require personal or mechanical assistance to accomplish the tasks necessary for independent living.

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Arthritis and Other Skeletal Diseases

The bones and joints of the skeletal system are the foundation that makes movement possible. Many common disorders affect the skeletal system, and can be debilitating. Arthritis includes roughly 100 disorders that lead to deterioration of the joints, with associated pain and loss of function. Osteoarthritis is the most common form of the disease among Americans. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that arthritis is the leading cause of disability in the United States 125. Approximately 23 million American adults report limitations in their activities due to arthritis.

Osteoporosis, characterized by weak and brittle bones, can also lead to disability in severe cases. Less common, debilitating skeletal disorders include osteomalacia -- or bone softening -- and genetic disorders that affect bone and skeletal structure.

Lung Diseases

Together with the circulatory system, the lungs provide the body with life-sustaining oxygen. Because the body's need for oxygen increases with activity, diseases that interfere with lung function can be severely debilitating. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, is a progressive lung condition in which tissue damage leads to a marked decrease in the ability to effectively extract oxygen from the air 2. COPD is the second leading cause of disability in the United States, and the third most common cause of death.

Less common lung diseases that may be debilitating include cystic fibrosis, pulmonary fibrosis and sarcoidosis. Each of these diseases scars or distorts the lungs such that they cannot function normally.

Cardiovascular Diseases

Heart diseases that progress to the point that the heart can no longer keep up with the body's demands -- a condition known as heart failure -- lead to disability, which can range from mild to severe. Coronary artery disease, characterized by fat deposits that obstruct blood flow to the heart, is the leading cause of heart failure in the U.S. Other causes include heart valve abnormalities, heart malformations and genetic disorders that affect the heart 1.

A stroke occurs when blood flow to the brain is disrupted, leading to death of brain cells. Stroke survivors are often left with long-term disabilities, which may affect their ability to move, communicate and think clearly. Approximately 795,000 strokes occur annually in the U.S., reports CDC.

Neuromuscular Diseases

Neuromuscular diseases encompass several disorders in which the interaction between nerve and muscle cells is disrupted, impairing normal movement. Muscular dystrophy refers to a group of inherited neuromuscular disorders characterized by progressive loss of voluntary muscle tissue and function, which is accompanied by similarly progressive disability. Myasthenia gravis and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig disease, are other examples of debilitating neuromuscular disorders. The cause of these two conditions remains unknown.

Other Causes

Many other disease are potentially debilitating. For example, untreated mental health disorders, such as:

  • major depression
  • generalized anxiety
  • schizophrenia
  • addiction
  • can leave people unable to function in their daily lives

Chronic disorders such as fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome/myalgic encephalomyelitis are also commonly debilitating. Other examples include

  • multiple sclerosis
  • Parkinson disease
  • Alzheimer disease
  • kidney or liver failure,
  • advanced-stage cancer or AIDS