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Secondary Conditions Worsen Disability

A person with a disability often has more to deal with than just his or her disability.

According to a study in an American Journal of Public Health and involving 2075 respondents from the state of Washington, 87 percent of adults with a disability reported having a secondary mental, social or physical condition affecting their well-being, versus only 49 percent of adults without a disability.

So a person with a disability often gets a double whammy.

Some secondary conditions surveyed in this groundbreaking study included sleep problems, extreme fatigue, muscle spasms, periods of depression, feelings of being isolated, problems making and seeing friends, serious episodes of anxiety, and problems getting out and around.

Unlike most disabling conditions, nearly every secondary condition above can be prevented.

In my private counseling practice, I've seen many people with disabilities who have a secondary condition that, in turn, has made managing their disability more challenging. This can result in a downward spiral for some people.

For example, take an elderly woman who has mobility issues and lives in a nursing home. She has difficulty walking. Perhaps she uses a walker or wheelchair. She feels isolated from family and friends because of her recently acquired inability to maintain close relationships.

So due in part to feeling isolated because of her disability, she goes on to develop depression, which may have as symptoms her losing interest in doing anything outside her nursing home, feeling fatigue, and gaining or losing weight.

These symptoms of depression, i.e., losing interest in activities, and feeling fatigue or gaining or losing weight, can then greatly affect her ability to manage her mobility disability.

To illustrate more specifically: Because of having fatigue caused by depression, this woman with a mobility disability may not want to get out of her wheelchair as much in order to exercise her legs. If not exercising her leg muscles as much, she ultimately could completely lose use of them, which would make her disability more problematic.

Some survey results were unsettling. For instance, a person with a disability was almost three times more likely to develop depression, three times more likely to develop serious periods of anxiety, and about three and a half times more likely to experience extreme fatigue.

If having a relative with a disability, you may think you are powerless to improve her functioning level, but in fact you may be able-by addressing her secondary condition. and Palmer Bus Service make this column possible.

Daniel J. Vance is a licensed professional counselor and national certified counselor from Vernon Center, Minn. His weekly newspaper column Disabilities has been published in more than 260 newspapers.

Daniel J. Vance may be reached at

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