Today's Interesting Medical Fact of the week is about a medical condition that may or may not, in fact, exist. Wikipedia defines "excited delirium" as "a condition that manifests as a combination of delirium, psychomotor agitation, anxiety, hallucinations, speech disturbances, disorientation, violent and bizarre behavior, insensitivity to pain, elevated body temperature, and superhuman strength." Never heard of it? Neither had I.
Excited delirium is not recognised as a cause of death by the Department of Health or the World Heath Organisation. It has become an extremely controversial topic in the UK recently, due to the death of Jacob Michael, a 25 year old man who died last year in police custody. The Home Office pathologist found that he died of excited delirium; Michael's parents disagree, arguing that the pathologist ignored the effects of heavy police restraint on their son.
Excited delirium has been cited as a cause of death in a number of death-in-custody cases in the UK, and more in the US; it started turning up in pathology reports in the 1980s. Many of the people who are reported to have died of excited delirium have cocaine or other drugs in their system, and it's been variously suggested that their death is due to excessive adrenaline or organ failure due to a massive spike in body temperature, with the risk of death being increased by pre-existing conditions. But Eric Balaban of the American Civil Liberties Union suggested that the diagnosis of excited delirium is used "as a means of white-washing what may be excessive use of force and inappropriate use of control techniques by officers during an arrest", with most reported cases of the disorder found in people who have died in custody.
There may be an explanation for this; Dr Vincent Di Maio, a former chief medical examiner in Texas, suggested that it is the very act of resisting or fighting with police which tips sufferers over the edge, and that police then wrongly get the blame. Some doctors have said that deaths from police brutality are clearly distinguishable from those due to excited delirium, with the physical marks of brutality obvious; others have accused taser manufacturers of using the diagnosis to explain away the deaths of people who have been hit with tasers. It's pretty much a minefield of conflicting opinions.
But Balaban argues that the symptoms of excited delirium are simply the symptoms of mental illness, possibly exacerbated by drug use; and this article looks at other medical conditions which can look like excited delirium, listing delirium tremens (alcohol withdrawal), hyperthermia (severe overheating), severe low blood sugar in diabetes, traumatic brain injury, viral encephalitis and thyroid storm (massive hyperthyroidism often caused by very high stress). The article does not mention epilepsy, but in some cases epileptic fits can lead sufferers to become extremely disoriented and confused, and there are probably several other disorders which could give rise to symptoms similar to those of "excited delirium".
It's an interesting debate to follow, although as someone with little knowledge of either medicine or police work, I'm hardly qualified to draw any conclusions. There's also the issue that the question of excited delirium is twofold; some question whether it is a medical condition at all, whereas others merely question whether it's a medical condition which in itself would actually lead to death. I will follow the debate with interest.