Parent-Reported Symptoms and Medications Used Among Children With Severe Neurological Impairment

JAMA Netw Open. 2020 Dec 1;3(12):e2029082. doi: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2020.29082.


Importance: Children with severe neurological impairment (SNI) often take multiple medications to treat problematic symptoms. However, for children who cannot self-report symptoms, no system exists to assess multiple symptoms and their association with medication use.

Objectives: To assess the prevalence of 28 distinct symptoms, test whether higher global symptom scores (GSS) were associated with use of more medications, and assess the associations between specific symptoms and medications.

Design, setting, and participants: This cross-sectional study was conducted between April 1, 2019, and December 31, 2019, using structured parent-reported symptom data paired with clinical and pharmacy data, at a single-center, large, hospital-based special health care needs clinic. Participants included children aged 1 to 18 years with SNI and 5 or more prescribed medications. Data analysis was performed from April to June 2020.

Exposure: During routine clinical visits, parent-reported symptoms were collected using the validated 28-symptom Memorial Symptom Assessment Scale (MSAS) and merged with clinical and pharmacy data.

Main outcomes and measures: Symptom prevalence, counts, and GSS (scored 0-100, with 100 being the worst) were calculated, and the association of GSS with medications was examined. To evaluate associations between symptom-medication pairs, the proportion of patients with a symptom who used a medication class or specific medication was calculated.

Results: Of 100 patients, 55.0% were boys, the median (interquartile range [IQR]) age was 9 (5-12) years, 62.0% had 3 or more complex chronic conditions, 76.0% took 10 or more medications, and none were able to complete the MSAS themselves. Parents reported a median (IQR) of 7 (4-10) concurrent active symptoms. The median (IQR) GSS was 12.1 (5.4-20.8) (range, 0.0-41.2) and the GSS was 9.8 points (95% CI, 5.5-14.1 points) higher for those with worse recent health than usual. Irritability (65.0%), insomnia (55.0%), and pain (54.0%) were the most prevalent symptoms. Each 10-point GSS increase was associated with 12% (95% CI, 4%-19%) higher medication counts, adjusted for age and complex chronic condition count. Among the 54.0% of children with reported pain, 61.0% were prescribed an analgesic.

Conclusions and relevance: These findings suggest that children with SNI reportedly experience substantial symptom burdens and that higher symptom scores are associated with increased medication use. Paired symptom-medication data may help clinicians identify targets for personalized symptom management, including underrecognized or undertreated symptoms.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Analgesics / therapeutic use*
  • Behavioral Symptoms / drug therapy
  • Behavioral Symptoms / etiology
  • Child
  • Chronic Disease / drug therapy
  • Chronic Disease / epidemiology
  • Colorado / epidemiology
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Data Collection / statistics & numerical data
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Medication Therapy Management* / organization & administration
  • Medication Therapy Management* / standards
  • Nervous System Diseases* / complications
  • Nervous System Diseases* / drug therapy
  • Nervous System Diseases* / epidemiology
  • Pain / drug therapy
  • Pain / etiology
  • Parents*
  • Prescription Drug Overuse* / prevention & control
  • Prescription Drug Overuse* / statistics & numerical data
  • Quality Improvement
  • Severity of Illness Index
  • Sleep Initiation and Maintenance Disorders / drug therapy
  • Sleep Initiation and Maintenance Disorders / etiology
  • Symptom Assessment* / methods
  • Symptom Assessment* / statistics & numerical data


  • Analgesics