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Pain in people with an intellectual disability

McGuire, Brian E.a; Kennedy, Susanb

Current Opinion in Psychiatry: May 2013 - Volume 26 - Issue 3 - p 270–275
doi: 10.1097/YCO.0b013e32835fd74c

Purpose of review Pain is a near-universal experience and research suggests that chronic pain, defined as pain lasting longer than 3 months, affects around 20% of the general population. However, there is relatively little awareness of the problem of pain amongst people with an intellectual disability.

Recent findings Recent prevalence studies indicated that chronic pain affects around 15% of people with an intellectual disability. Although prevalence can be estimated based on third-party reports, there are methodological limitations that suggest this way of detecting pain may be unreliable. Other methods, such as structured behavioural observation, offer a reliable and valid alternative. Once pain has been recognized, however, there has been limited research to evaluate pain management interventions for people with an intellectual disability, especially in the area of self-management.

Summary There is good evidence to support behavioural observation methods for recognition of pain in people with limited ability to communicate about their pain. Psychological interventions for pain management are widely used in the general population and may also have a useful role in assisting people with an intellectual disability who are affected by persistent pain. However, there is an ongoing paucity of research in this area.

aSchool of Psychology and Centre for Pain Research, National University of Ireland

bDepartment of Psychology, Brothers of Charity Services, Galway, Ireland

Correspondence to Dr Brian E. McGuire, MClin, Psych, PhD, School of Psychology and Centre for Pain Research, National University of Ireland, Galway, Ireland. Tel: +353 91 493266; e-mail:

© 2013 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.