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Psychopharmacology for persons with intellectual disability

Primary Care Guide To The Prescription Of
Benzodiazepines For Adults With Mental
Retardation and Developmental Disabilities
1. Overview of Safe, Effective Prescription of Benzodiazepines
The consensus guidelines to the prescription of psychotropic medications to persons with
MR/DD do NOT list benzodiazepines as first line medications of choice for any psychiatric
or behavioral problem (1). Anxiety disorders or related symptoms may occur in up to 8% of
patients with MR/DD (2), (3), (4). The patient with MR/DD may develop symptoms of
anxiety as a primary disorder or in the setting of
other medical or psychiatric problems. The Appropriate Use of Benzodiazepine
use of benzodiazepines in the MR/DD patient Medications in the Patient with
requires careful prescription, dose titration, and monitoring for side effects. Most benzodiazepines have significant side effects in the patient with 1. Documented
Anxiety Disorders
2. Anxiety Associated with Bereavement
MR/DD and these drugs should be prescribed with 3. Pre-op Procedure Sedation
great caution and precision (See Table 1), (5).
4. Alcohol
Benzodiazepines are frequently prescribed for agitation, aggression, and sleep disorders; however, Possible Use of Benzodiazepines
consensus guidelines do not support their use for 1. Acute Agitation or Aggression
2. Mania

these target symptoms. (1), (6).
3. Short-term
2. Indications for Benzodiazepines
The benzodiazepines can be used to treat anxiety disorders (7) including generalized anxiety
disorder (GAD), post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and others when these symptoms are
not produced by medical problems, depression or other conditions (See Table 1). These
medications can be used to sedate patients for medical or dental procedures such as chest X-
rays, EKGs, and such. In general, the benzodiazepine class of medications has very limited
long-term efficacy for any condition except generalized anxiety disorders in persons with
MR/DD. For this reason, nursing home regulations limit use of benzodiazepines for any
indication besides a DSM diagnosis within the anxiety spectrum. The prescription of
benzodiazepines has specific limitations for agitation, aggression, and other dangerous
behaviors manifested by a person with MR/DD. Short-term use of these medications to
sedate the patient may be the most effective way to defuse a potentially dangerous situation,
e.g., Ativan 0.5 to 1mgm IM. Long-term use of a benzodiazepine may produce confusion,
excitation, or disinhibition that will actually worsen agitation and aggression. The long-term
use of benzodiazepines is not effective for insomnia or nocturnal agitation. Federal
guidelines discourage the chronic, nightly prescription of these medications is not allowed
for sleep in the nursing home setting beyond two weeks of continuous therapy. The
benzodiazepines tend to lose efficacy as a hypnotic after 4-6 weeks of continuous nighttime
Primary Care Guide To The Prescription Of Benzodiazepines For Adults With Mental Retardation and 1
Developmental Disabilities (MR/DD)
Richard E. Powers, MD (2005) – Bureau of Geriatric Psychiatry
use and this class of medication is usually ineffective for long-term management of insomnia
(8), (9).
3. Medication Characteristics
The benzodiazepines are generally divided into long, intermediate and short, half-life
medications (10). Most older medications, e.g., Valium, Librium, etc., have a long half-life,
while the newer drugs, e.g., temazepam, alprazolam, have intermediate half-life (See Table
The clinician should be familiar with the half-life of each medication. Most are
hepatically excreted except for oxazepam and lorazepam and these medications may be better
in patients with significant liver impairment. The clinician is encouraged to become familiar
with one or two benzodiazepine medications and use these medications as the primary
Two benzodiazepines have special features of note for clinicians. Clonazapam is a long,
half-life benzodiazepine, which may have some efficacy for seizure, mood stabilization, and
myoclonic jerking. This medication can produce significant toxicity due to its long half-life
and should be used with great care. Klonopin is specifically identified in nursing home
regulations as problematic. Alprazolam (Xanax) is a second drug which is pharmaco-
kinetically distinct from the other benzodiazepines. This medication can produce significant
addiction and the potential for prolonged withdrawal with sustained use. Xanax has no
parenteral formulation and patients who abruptly stop this medication, e.g., due to GI
problems, can develop withdrawal. Cross-coverage with other benzodiazepines may not be
effective in suppressing withdrawal for this medication. Because other benzodiazepines have
fewer potential side effects, the clinician may wish to avoid Xanax in the mentally retarded.
A brief course of Xanax, e.g., two weeks, for specific anxiety symptoms, such as
bereavement may be quite beneficial; however, long-term therapy, e.g., over one month, can
produce significant complications.
Benzodiazepines can also be prescribed for alcohol withdrawal. A seven-day course of
tapering dosages is often used to prevent DT’s.
4. Prescription of Benzodiazepine Medications for Specific Indications
Management of Acute Agitation with Benzodiazepine Medications. Injectable
benzodiazepines are often given to calm acutely agitated patients. The typical dose of
Ativan, ranging from 0.25mgm to 1mgm, will usually calm the average patient with MR/DD.
Larger, healthy adolescents or young adults may require more medication. Treatment
alternatives to benzodiazepines include IM atypical antipsychotics such as Zyprexa – 2.5-
10mgm depending on patient features or older medications, such as Haldol-0.5 to 5mgm.
Management of Anxiety with Benzodiazepine Medications. Four broad classes of
medications have been used for the treatment of anxiety in the population with MR/DD:
antidepressants, benzodiazepines, antipsychotics, and other miscellaneous medications (11).
A variety of sedating medications including antihistamines, barbiturates, and other sedatives
such as meprobamate have been prescribed for symptomatic management. Similar
medications are also prescribed to assist with sleep problems. These “all-other” drugs are
included on both the old and the new “Beers” list of prohibited medications in nursing homes
Primary Care Guide To The Prescription Of Benzodiazepines For Adults With Mental Retardation and 2
Developmental Disabilities (MR/DD)
Richard E. Powers, MD (2005) – Bureau of Geriatric Psychiatry
and the use of these medications under OBRA regulations draws specific scrutiny by the
nursing home surveyors (13).
The pharmacological management of anxiety in the patient with MR/DD depends on the
severity of disability, underlying disease, associated health problems and psychiatric
comorbidity (9). Anxiety is a fairly common symptom in the person with MR/DD for both
children and adults. Individuals with mild to moderate MR should be capable of explaining
core symptoms of anxiety; however, severely retarded individuals may lack the ability to
describe these symptoms. The symptoms of anxiety or panic disorder should prompt a
search for behavioral or medical explanations, as well as other underlying psychiatric
comorbidity including depression, bereavement, response to environmental stressors, and
abuse/neglect. The prescription of benzodiazepines should be limited to patients with a clear
definitive diagnosis and precise target symptoms that allow clinicians and staff to determine
whether sufficient improvement is present to warrant this use in high risk population. The
use of benzodiazepines in moderate to severely retarded individuals who are unable to
explain their emotional state requires careful consideration and follow-up.
Lorazepam and oxazepam are relatively safe benzodiazepine medications with intermediate
duration half-life, rapid speed on onset and minimal sensitivity to liver disease (See Table 2).
Dosing should begin at low range, low frequency, and occur three or four times per day. “As
needed” medications are acceptable ways to treat anxiety when dosing occurs once or twice
per week. Dosing ranges must be adjusted for each patient. Addiction may occur after three
or four months of daily use and abrupt cessation of benzodiazepine medications should be
avoided. Medications should be titrated to the lowest dosing range required to control
symptoms. As tolerance develops, the patient may require larger doses of medications.
Benzodiazepines can be used in selected situations for brief periods of time, e.g., adjustment
reactions, bereavement, etc. A brief, i.e., 2-weeks, course of low-dose, short half-life
benzodiazepine is generally considered to be safe for most persons with intellectual
Hypnotics. Sleep disturbance can occur in persons with MR/DD. Insomnia is caused by
many medical, psychiatric, environmental and behavioral problems that will not respond to
hypnotics. Short-acting hypnotic agents, such as zolpidem or eszopiclone, can be prescribed
for brief periods of time or episodically, such as every third night (See Table 2). Tolerance
and rebound insomnia are common problems of chronic usage.
Other Indications. Benzodiazepines are sometimes prescribed as anticonvulsants and
antispasmodics. These medications have limited efficacy as anticonvulsants.
Primary Care Guide To The Prescription Of Benzodiazepines For Adults With Mental Retardation and 3
Developmental Disabilities (MR/DD)
Richard E. Powers, MD (2005) – Bureau of Geriatric Psychiatry
Commonly Used Dosing Ranges for Benzodiazepine Anxiolytic Medications for the Adult
Population with MR/DD
See PDR for
Complete Details
Long Acting (t1/2>24hrs)
Intermediate Acting (t1/2 = 12-24hrs)
Short Acting (t1/2<12hrs)
All benzodiazepine medications may be addictive and produce delirium, falls, or excessive sedation. These medications are not recommended for children.
5. Toxicity of Benzodiazepines
Clinicians should avoid the use of long, half-life benzodiazepines in persons with mental
retardation. The long, half-life medications are included in the Beer’s list of contraindicated
drugs for brain damaged persons because of increased risk of toxic accumulation (13).
Intermediate and short, half-life medications are preferable and these drugs can be
administered on a regular basis when indicated. Once-a-day dosing of a short, half-life drug
such as Ativan produces withdrawal at 16 hours following the last dosage. Most
benzodiazepines are hepatically excreted producing problems for patients with liver failure.
Oxazepam and lorazepam are benzodiazepines that are almost totally excreted by the kidneys
Benzodiazepines are addictive and abrupt cessation of medication can produce withdrawal syndromes and drug-seeking behavior on the parts of patients. Xanax is particularly addictive and produces a complex withdrawal syndrome. Patients who are prescribed Xanax for months or years should have a slow, gradual, methodical taper that lasts over many weeks to months. The dose reduction schedule should be based on the total daily dosing at the initiation of the taper. Cross-titration to other benzodiazepines could potentially produce withdrawal in a small number of individuals. Addicted individuals receiving large doses, e.g., 6-8mgm per day, may require many months of dose tapering. Primary Care Guide To The Prescription Of Benzodiazepines For Adults With Mental Retardation and 4
Developmental Disabilities (MR/DD)
Richard E. Powers, MD (2005) – Bureau of Geriatric Psychiatry
Benzodiazepines are potentially toxic in all persons with brain injury or developmental brain Possible Complications of
Benzodiazepine Therapy in Adults
abnormalities. Benzodiazepines can produce with MR/DD
considerable sedation, additional confusion, respiratory suppression, and functional deterioration • Hyperkinesis
because of the chronic intoxication. Some individuals • Paradoxical Excitation
develop a paradoxical effect to the medication and • Confusion
may become agitated or delirious. Individuals • Accidents
receiving benzodiazepines are at greater risk for falls, Psych Annals 1997;27(3):183-90
injury, and fractures. These individuals have a higher
rate of GERD (See Table 3), (4).

6. Dosing Ranges for Benzodiazepines
The initiation and maintenance dose of benzodiazepines depends on the age, size, and frailty
of the person with MR/DD. Dosing with benzodiazepines should commence with one-half to
one-quarter the recommended initial dose in persons with medical or neurological problems
as well as those with severe intellectual disability (See Table 2). The younger patient with
mild retardation and no significant health problems can tolerate a normal adult dose of a
benzodiazepine; however, moderate or severely retarded individuals as well as those with
comorbid medical problems require substantial dose reductions in the range of one-half to
three-quarters the normal adult dose. Benzodiazepines should be used with great care in the
aging MR person and further dose reductions should be considered. The sedating effect of
benzodiazepines is additive with other medications that can depress level of alertness, such as

7. Conclusion
Benzodiazepines are powerful, psychotropic medications with a relatively narrow therapeutic range and list of clinical indications for persons with MR/DD. Primary Care Guide To The Prescription Of Benzodiazepines For Adults With Mental Retardation and 5
Developmental Disabilities (MR/DD)
Richard E. Powers, MD (2005) – Bureau of Geriatric Psychiatry
1. Special Issue. Expert Consensus Guidelines Series: Treatment of psychiatric and behavioral
problems in mental retardation. American Journal on Mental Retardation 2000;105(3):165-188. 2. Cooper SA. Epidemiology of psychiatric disorders in elderly compared with younger adults with learning disabilities. British Journ. of Psych. 1997;170:375-380. 3. Fraser WI, Leudar I, Gray J, Campbell I. Psychiatric and behavior disturbance in mental handicap. J. Ment. Defic. Res. 1986;30:49-57. 4. Eaton LF, Menolascino FJ. Psychiatric disorders in the mentally retarded: types, problems, and challenges. Am. J. Psych. 1982;139:1297-1303. 5. Barron J, Sandman CA. Paradoxical excitement to sedative-hypnotics in mentally retarded clients. American Journal on Mental Deficiency 1985;90(2):124-129. 6. Reiss S, Aman MG. The international consensus process on psychopharmacology and intellectual disability. Journal of Intellectual Disability Research 1997; 41(6):448-455. 7. Kaplan HI, Sadock BJ, eds. Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry/V, Baltimore: Williams 8. Santosh PJ, Baird G. Psychopharmacotherapy in children and adults with intellectual disability. The Lancet 1999;354:231-240. 9. Stavrakaki C, Mintsioulis G. Implications of a clinical study of anxiety disorders in persons with mental retardation. Psychiatric Annals 1997;27(3):182-197. 10. Tasman A, Kay J, Lieberman JA (Eds.)., (2003). Psychiatry therapeutics (2nd Edition). 11. Khreim I, Mikkelsen E. Anxiety disorders in adults with mental retardation. Psych. Annals 12. Ryan R, Sunada K. Medical evaluation of persons with mental retardation referred for psychiatric assessment. General Hospital Psychiatry 1997;19:274-280. 13. Beers MH, Ouslander JG, Rollingher I, Reuben DB, et al. Explicit criteria for determining inappropriate medication use in nursing home residents. Arch Intern Med 1991;45:158-165. Primary Care Guide To The Prescription Of Benzodiazepines For Adults With Mental Retardation and 6
Developmental Disabilities (MR/DD)
Richard E. Powers, MD (2005) – Bureau of Geriatric Psychiatry



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