Gastrointestinal (GI) disorders are common secondary conditions of developmental disabilities. The four most prevalent disorders, which are described in detail in this document, are gastroesophageal reflux disease, gastritis, chronic constipation, and chronic diarrhea.
Many treatments are available to relieve symptoms of gastrointestinal disorders. It is important to note, however, that many of these treatments fail to cure the underlying problem. Because the patient may not experience pain or discomfort, it is possible for internal damage to continue without the physician’s knowledge, which can lead to serious conditions if not addressed.
The recommendations presented in this document are in addition to the normal medical care provided to an individual without gastrointestinal disorders. All recommendations can be addressed through clinical examination by the primary care provider, unless otherwise noted.
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a chronic, progressive disorder involving the backward flow of gastroduodenal contents into the esophagus. GERD is the most common serious condition of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. It is caused by (1) a defective lower esophageal sphincter; (2) a gastric emptying disorder; or (3) failed esophageal peristalsis.
GERD affects 15-20% of the developmentally disabled population.
Return to the index for a full document on GERD.
Gastritis is an inflammatory reaction in the stomach, typically involving the mucosa. Symptoms include epigastric distress (often aggravated by eating), anorexia, nausea with or without vomiting, and hiccups.
DGR is diagnosed by isotopic gastric emptying studies. H. pylori infection may be diagnosed by endoscopic biopsy with CLO test and histopathological exam.
Almost all treatment is outpatient, except for severe hemorrhagic gastritis caused by stress ulceration. Most cases clear spontaneously when the cause has been identified and treated, although H. pylori infection may require a repeated course of treatment.
Duodeno-gastric reflux (DGR) :
Chronic constipation is a condition in which the stool accumulates, hardens, blocks up, and/or is difficult to expel, which may lead to three or more days between bowel movements. Chronic constipation is a symptom of an underlying problem and an issue for many people with developmental disabilities.
Return to the index for a full document on Chronic Constipation.
Chronic diarrhea is characterized by the frequent passage of unformed, watery stools for more than three to four weeks.
Inflammatory diarrhea: inflammatory bowel disease, radiation enterocolitis, eosinophilic gastroenteritis, HIV/AIDS
Osmotic diarrhea: pancreatic insufficiency, bacterial overgrowth, celiac disease, lactase deficiency, Whipple’s disease, abetalipoproteinemia, short bowel syndrome, medications (colchicine, neomycin, para-aminosalicylic acid)
Factitious: laxative abuse
Secretory diarrhea: carcinoid syndrome, Zollinger-Ellison syndrome, vasoactive intestinal peptide-secreting pancreatic adenomas, medullary carcinoma of thyroid, villous adenoma of rectum, microscopic colitis, choleraic diarrhea
Altered intestinal motility: irritable bowel syndrome, fecal impaction, neurologic diseases, diabetes
Idiopathic diarrhea: unknown cause
Phase I: Lifestyle and Diet Modifications
Phase II: Medication (if lifestyle and diet modifications not effective)
Donowitz, M, et al. (1995). Evaluation of Patients with Chronic Diarrhea. New England Journal of Medicine, 332(11) 725-729.
Kuipers, E.J. (1997). Helicobacter Pylori and the Risk and Management of Associated Diseases: Gastritis, Ulcer Disease, Atrophic Gastritis and Gastric Cancer. Alimentary Pharmacology and Therapeutics, 11(1), 71-88.
Lipsky, M.S., Adelman, M. (1993). Chronic Diarrhea: Evaluation and Treatment. American Family Physician, 48(8),1461-1466.
Mertz, H. et al. (1999). Symptoms and Physiology in Severe Chronic Constipation. American Journal of Gastroenterology, 94(1), 131-138.
Nyam, D.C. et al. (1997). Long-term Results of Surgery for Chronic Constipation. Diseases of the Colon and Rectum, 40(3), 273-279.
Orchard, J.L. et al. (1995). Upper Gastrointestinal Tract Bleeding in Institutionalized Mentally Retarded Adults: Primary Role of Esophagitis. Archives of Family Medicine, 4(1) 30-33.
Projansky R. et al. (1994). Symptomatic H. Pylori Infection in Young Patients With Severe Neurologic Impairment. Journal of Pediatrics, 125, 750-752.
Tramonte, S.M. et al. (1997). The Treatment of Chronic Constipation in Adults: A Systematic Review. Journal of General Internal Medicine, 12(1) 15-24.
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Hoy, Douglas M. MD. (1999). Gastritis. In M.R. Dambro (Ed.) Griffith’s 5 Minute Clinical Consult (pp. 420-421.) Baltimore: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
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Starrett, Andrea L. MD. 1991. In: Developmental Disabilities in Infancy and Childhood. Eds: Capute, Arnold J. and Pasquale J. Accardo. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co., Inc., pp. 184-185.
American Digestive Health Foundation, 800-668-5237
American Gastroenterological Association (AGA), 301-654-2055,
California Department of Developmental Services, 916-654-1690,
California Regional Centers, 916-654-1958,
Digestive Disease Week, 609-848-1000,
International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders, 888-964-2001,
Intestinal Disease Foundation, 412-261-5888
National Digestive Diseases Clearinghouse, 212-685-3440
National Institute of Diabetes, Digestive and Kidney Diseases,
Society of American Gastrointestinal Endoscopic Surgeons (SAGES), 310-314-2404
Theodore A. Kastner, M.D., M.S.
Felice Weber Parisi, M.D., M.P.H.
Romie Holland, M.D.
Patrick J. Maher, M.D.
Howard L. Wolfinger, Jr., M.D.
Funded by a grant from the California Department of Developmental Services
For more information, contact:
Center for Health Improvement
1330 21st Street, Suite 100
Sacramento, CA 95814
This document does not provide advice regarding medical diagnosis or treatment for any individual case, and any opinions or statements contained in this document are not intended to serve as a standard of medical care. Physicians are encouraged to view the considerations presented in this document in light of evolving scientific information. This document is not intended for use by the layperson. Reproduction of this document may be done with proper credit given to California Department of Developmental Services and the Center for Health Improvement.