Understanding Exacerbation versus Aggravation

Exacerbation: from exacerbate. ex·ac·er·bate. iɡˈzasərˌbāt/
verb 1. make (a problem, bad situation, or negative feeling) worse.

Aggravation: from aggravate. ag·gra·vate ˈaɡrəˌvāt/
verb 1. make (a problem, injury, or offense) worse or more serious.

The difference… is confusing. That’s why we’re here to help! In a workers’ compensation context, the difference between exacerbation and aggravation is very significant.
  • Aggravation is a worsening of a pre-existing condition or impairment.
  • Exacerbation is a temporary or transient worsening of a prior condition.
  • The determination between aggravation and exacerbation can only be judged correctly when the employee’s work-related injury is at MMI (maximal medical improvement).

Problem Solving: A 34-year-old female has pre-existing chronic low back pain 5/10. Then, a work injury occurs, and the pain in her back increases to 8/10. Conservative care is provided, and at maximal medical improvement the pain returns to a 5/10.

Has an aggravation or exacerbation occurred?

The answer: Exacerbation, because the employee has returned to her pre-existing condition baseline.

Next time you need to look up this pesky but important difference, simply remember that the determination between aggravation or exacerbation can only be made at MMI.

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