Baldness or cellulite can cause as much distress as diagnosed disease, says study

 

Road rage, jet lag and cellulite are included in a top 20 list of the non-diseases which most worry people, according to a survey published by the British Medical Journal. While they might not be official illnesses, they can cause just as much suffering as real diseases, according to the study.

Non-diseases are no laughing matter to those who suffer from them; disorders such as ugliness, baldness, freckles and protruding ears. There are advantages and disadvantages, however, to having your particular non-disease included as a genuine ailment, according to the journal report.

"Some critics thought it an absurd exercise, but our primary aim was to illustrate the slipperiness of the notion of disease," said the report's author, editor Dr Richard Smith. "We wanted to prompt a debate on what is and what is not a disease and draw attention to the increasing tendency to classify people's problems as diseases."

What to include or exclude can be tricky, Dr Smith suggested. A similar British Medical Journal survey in 1979 found no agreement on disorders such as high blood pressure, gallstones and severe acne.

"To have your condition labelled as a disease may bring considerable benefit. Immediately you are likely to enjoy sympathy rather than blame. You may be exempted from many commitments, including work," he said. Children quickly learn that claiming to have a headache will bring sympathy and a hug "whereas saying, 'I can't be bothered to go to school' will bring anger and punishment".

There could be a down side if your problem achieves disease status, however. "It may allow the authorities to lock you up or invade your body. You may be denied insurance, a mortgage and employment. You are forever labelled, you are a victim."

Being labelled as having a recognised disease could cause "inescapable stigma", he warned. "Worst of all, the diagnosis of a disease may lead you to regard yourself as forever flawed and incapable of rising above your problem."

The journal invited visitors to its website to rank a list of non-diseases. It also asked participants to add ailments to the list, quickly building up a catalogue of 200. "Some of these non-diseases already appear in official classifications of disease, and perhaps those that do not currently appear will be appearing soon," Dr Smith said.

For the record, the top 20 non-diseases after the vote on bmj.com are: 1, ageing; 2, work; 3, boredom; 4, bags under eyes; 5, ignorance; 6, baldness; 7, freckles; 8, big ears; 9, grey or white hair; 10, ugliness; 11, childbirth; 12, allergy to the 21st century; 13, jet lag; 14, unhappiness; 15, cellulite; 16, hangover; 17, anxiety about penis size/penis envy; 18, pregnancy; 19, road rage; 20, loneliness.