Friday 9 March 2018

Physical conditions accompanying intellectual disabilities

By linking to some media discussing the inquest findings for Richard Handley (see here) I don't want to trivialise his death or use it as some kind of 'I told you so' example. Here was a man who died as a result of "gross failures" in his care as someone with Down's syndrome who also had a history of bowel issues. His death, linked to chronic constipation and "as a result of choking on his own vomit having inhaled gastric contents following complications with surgery", represents failures on many different levels. Not least is a seeming lack of appreciation of how bowel issues can very much be part of the clinical profile of many conditions / labels / diagnoses considered within the spectrum of intellectual or learning disabilities. Said issues require both regular monitoring and appropriate and timely intervention.

It is perhaps notable then that the paper by Deborah Kinnear and colleagues [1] is published these days, highlighting how various physical conditions are over-represented alongside diagnoses characterised by intellectual (learning) disability. The authors reported that: "The five most prevalent were visual impairment, obesity, epilepsy, constipation and ataxic/gait disorders."

Based on the examination of data for "people with intellectual disabilities living within the geographical area of Greater Glasgow Health Board, Scotland" between 2002 and 2004, researchers reviewed case records and "completed a comprehensive semi-structured health interview and targeted physical examination and followed a phlebotomy protocol, with the person with intellectual disabilities and their carer." This was time consuming affair - the "complete assessment process took about 4 hours per participant" - covering over 1000 people.

Alongside the reporting of those 'top five most prevalent conditions', researchers also observed several other important details. Namely that nearly all of their cohort had a least one co-existing health condition. The average number of comorbid conditions was 11. Yes, that's 11. And some people had over 25 comorbid physical conditions. When also taking into account the presence or not of Down's syndrome, not much changed in relation to the detected physical comorbidity. Similarly, when age and sex/gender were examined, the authors concluded that there only minor differences noted in terms of comorbidity profiles for example.

Relevant to the case of Richard Handley are some discussions in the Kinnear paper about constipation and learning disability. So: "Constipation was the fourth most prevalent physical health condition." Further, they note in another study [2]: "Eight people with chronic constipation had serious side effects (rectal prolapse, diverticula of colon, intestinal obstruction, megacolon and haemorrhoids) and four eventually died of intestinal obstruction... Thus, as well as being painful, constipation may remain undetected for a long time and can cause death due to missed clinical symptoms." Constipation can cause death. It shouldn't in this day and age, but it still does...

In relation to the implications of their findings, the authors make some additional comments. So: "Medical education is also focused on assessment and management of single conditions, yet management of multimorbidity is far more complex." This is important. It implies that outside of the view of one [primary] diagnosis being present per patient, clinicians and others need to have a more plural view, particularly when it comes to something like learning disability. The focus also on 'physical' comorbidities is also important insofar as how various developmental / behavioural / psychiatric conditions can very much manifest other non-developmental / behavioural / psychiatric conditions. This kinda mirrors what has been discussed with autism in mind (see here and see here for examples) and, alongside, the barriers that need to be overcome when it comes to appropriate diagnoses being made in such contexts (see here).

Set within other data indicating that premature mortality is very much over-represented when it comes to learning disability (see here), and that much of that early mortality is due to the presence of physical health conditions, the Kinnear findings should serve as a wake-up call to many sectors of the professional and other communities. Screening, diagnosing and implementing timely and appropriate intervention(s) are key recommendations; with a specific focus on the person as a whole rather than just being the sum of individual somethings like the diagnosis of learning disability. Bear in mind also that guidance on the management of something like constipation in the context of learning disability does exist in the peer-reviewed domain [3].

And finally, just in case you think that today's discussions aren't directly relevant to autism, constipation has also been mentioned in the death of another young person (see here)...


[1] Kinnear D. et al. Prevalence of physical conditions and multimorbidity in a cohort of adults with intellectual disabilities with and without Down syndrome: cross-sectional study. BMJ Open. 2018; 8: e018292.

[2] Evenhuis HM. Medical aspects of ageing in a population with intellectual disability: III. Mobility, internal conditions and cancer. J Intellect Disabil Res. 1997 Feb;41 ( Pt 1):8-18.

[3] Robertson J. et al. Constipation management in people with intellectual disability: A systematic review. J Appl Res Intellect Disabil. 2017 Nov 23.


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