What Is Functional Impairment?

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  • Written By: Malcolm Tatum
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 13 January 2019
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Functional impairment is a health condition in which the normal function of a part of the body is less than full capacity. The types of impairments that may be sustained range from mild situations that involve only a slight loss in function to total impairment that is often considered a full disability. While the term is often applied to physical limitations, it can also be evidenced as a cognitive or emotional limitation as well.

The signs of a functional impairment typically include manifestations of some sort of decrease in ability that is noticeable to others. For example, one that affects the hands may be the inability to make a fist or to grip objects that in the past were easy to grasp securely. As it relates to emotional issues, the development of depression, phobias, and anxiety disorders are all conditions that may be classed as impairments, along with a diagnosis of dementia or some other type of mental illness.

One of the defining characteristics of functional impairment is that the reduction in physical or mental capacity is sufficient to interfere with managing day-to-day tasks. For example, if an individual experiences a severe nervous illness that in turn leads to the development of agoraphobia, that individual’s ability to work outside the home or participate in activities such as eating out or attending a social event may be significantly diminished. When this occurs, the functional impairment of the individual is considered somewhat high.


Identifying the presence of functional impairment is important for several reasons. From a medical point of view, properly assessing the type of impairment present makes it easier to identify the most beneficial course of treatment for the patient. From a legal standpoint, the assessment of impairment is often necessary to determine if the individual is entitled to disability benefits offered through private insurance, group insurance carried by an employer, or benefits provided to the disabled through a government agency.

Depending on the nature of the events surrounding the functional impairment, the condition may be considered permanent or short term. Some forms of mental or emotional debilitation can successfully be treated with therapy and medication, allowing the individual to slowly reduce the level of impairment and reclaim his or her life once more. In cases that involve some sort of permanent physical change, such as the loss of a limb, some level of impairment may remain for the remainder of the individual’s life, although the degree of that impairment may change as new skills are developed to compensate for the loss.


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Also from a legal standpoint, determining the degree of impairment (10 percent, 30 percent, 100 percent, etc.) can also be important when determining damages. How much, for example, is the use of an arm worth to the injured party? Let's say the injured party could earn $1 million during his lifetime if his arm is completely unimpaired. A 10 percent impairment, then, could mean the person causing the injury is liable for $100,000 in damages.

It seems cynical to evaluate things in such terms, but that is often the case when it comes to deciding how much money it will take to make the injured party "whole."

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