Identifying Pain in Those Who Can’t Communicate it

CPD
4m

Published: 09 June 2020

For patients who do not have the capacity to communicate, pain can be overlooked, causing significant but unnecessary discomfort and distress.

Defining Pain

Pain is complex, subjective and varying. The International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP) (2017) defines pain as ‘an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage’.

Pain can range from mild to severe, affecting a localised area or several parts of the body. It is a highly personal experience that varies in intensity depending on the individual, even if caused by the same stimulus (Shiel 2017, 2018).

Rather than purely causing physical discomfort, pain may also have implications on an individual’s emotional or mental wellbeing (Painaustralia 2016).

There are three types of pain:

  1. Acute pain is usually temporary and sudden, with a clearly defined trigger. It eventually resolves once the underlying cause has been addressed.
  2. Chronic pain is persistent, often lasting for weeks, months or years. It may be triggered by an underlying condition, be a condition in its own right, or have no clear cause.
  3. Cancer pain is associated with early-stage or advanced disease, or may be the side-effect of treatment.

(Painaustralia 2016; Shiel 2017)

Pain Statistics

Pain is prevalent, especially in older adults and people with medical conditions.

  • One in three adults over 65 experience chronic pain.
  • One in four people with a profound disability experience severe pain.
  • Two in three people with a spinal cord injury experience ongoing pain.
  • 80% of aged care residents experience pain.
  • Between 40 and 74% of intensive care patients experience pain.

(Painaustralia 2017; Deldar, Froutan & Ebadi 2018)

Communicating Pain

pain scale
Patient self-reports are the most reliable gauge of pain.

The highly subjective nature of pain means that the best person to measure and describe the pain is the individual experiencing it. Patient self-reports are the most reliable gauge (Shiel 2017; Gélinas 2016).

Furthermore, adequate communication is one of the most important components of caring for patients (Marie Curie 2019).

However, some patients may not have the capacity to self-report their pain. The process of discussing and assessing pain is a complicated social transaction between patient and healthcare professional, and if the patient is unable to communicate their pain, it becomes difficult to appropriately respond to and treat their discomfort (Boekel et al. 2017).

A study found that 1 in 10 patients self-report a low level of pain even if the pain is considered unacceptable. This poses serious questions and concerns about those who cannot communicate their pain at all (Boekel et al. 2017).

In addition to being a physically uncomfortable experience, untreated pain may also:

  • Cause unnecessary suffering;
  • Worsen cognitive impairments;
  • Cause the patient to become agitated;
  • Impair the patient’s quality of life;
  • Delay recovery;
  • Interfere with daily life;
  • Cause psychological distress;
  • Cause breathing difficulties leading to respiratory deterioration;
  • Cause immobilisation;
  • Impair physical function; and
  • Increase the risk of falls.

(Booker & Haedtke 2016; McGuire et al. 2016; Gan 2017)

When a patient is unable to verbally express their discomfort, you should use assessment tools and observe for any pain behaviours. This is imperative to ensure all patients are comfortable and nobody is unknowingly suffering (Booker & Haedtke 2016).

Who Might be Unable to Communicate Pain?

  • Post-anaesthetic patients;
  • Patients with cognitive impairments such as dementia;
  • Patients receiving palliative care;
  • Patients receiving end-of-life care;
  • Patients with hearing difficulties;
  • Intubated patients;
  • Sedated or unresponsive patients;
  • Patients with aphasia;
  • Neurologically compromised patients;
  • Patients who have fears, beliefs and misconceptions about their pain;
  • Patients who have specific cultural needs; and
  • Patients who have difficulty with literacy and numeracy skills.

(Booker & Haedtke 2016; McGuire et al. 2016; Marie Curie 2019; VIC DoH n.d.)

pain unconscious
There are several reasons why a patient may be unable to communicate their pain.

Non-Verbal Assessment Tools

There many tools that may be used to assess non-verbal patients. The following are some widely-used examples - please note that this is not a comprehensive list of every tool available.

(GeriatricPain 2019)

An extended list of tools can be found here.

Note: Always refer to your facility’s policies and procedures when selecting and using pain assessment tools.

Non-Verbal Clinical Signs and Symptoms of Pain

The following behaviours may suggest the presence of pain in adults who are unable to communicate:

Facial expressions Facial expressions Rapid blinking, fear, brow lowering, clenched teeth, narrowing or closure of eyes, upper lip raising, nose wrinkling.
Verbalisations Screaming, swearing, crying, moaning, sighing, making fewer sounds than is typical.
Body movements Gaiting, limping, rubbing a body area, muscle rigidity, decreased movement, guarding, pacing, rocking, fidgeting, repetitive movements, reluctance to move, decreased range of movement.
Interpersonal interactions Resisting care, aggression, withdrawal, isolation.
Mood and mental state Delirium, depressive state, agitation, anxiety, irritability, crying, impaired executive function, declining cognition, worsening of cognitive impairment, confusion, restlessness.
Activity Wandering, sleep disturbances, increased sleep, social disengagement, change of routine, staying in bed, low appetite.
Function Decreased ability to function in daily life, falls.
Autonomic signs Pallor, altered breathing, change in vital signs, sweating.

(Adapted from Booker & Haedtke 2016; Dementia Australia 2015)

Note: These signs may be unrelated to pain and caused by another condition. Some patients experiencing pain may display few or none of these signs (Dementia Australia 2015).

pain behaviour
When a patient is unable to verbally express their discomfort, you should observe for any pain behaviours.

Challenges Faced by Healthcare Professionals

A study identified the following challenges experienced by nurses that may inhibit the assessment of pain in non-verbal patients:

  • Pain assessment of non-verbal patients not being routine;
  • Lack of relevant policies and procedures;
  • Inadequate discussions about pain between nurses and physicians;
  • Lack of assessment tools in the nursing flowchart;
  • Inadequate nurse-to-patient ratios;
  • Limited or no experience in using non-verbal assessment scales;
  • The belief that sedated patients do not need additional pain relief;
  • Lack of understanding regarding pain in unconscious patients;
  • The belief that non-verbal assessment tools are ineffective;
  • Unfamiliarity with non-verbal pain scales; and
  • Lack of training in non-verbal pain scales.

(Deldar, Froutan & Ebadi 2018)

Identifying and remedying these barriers to effective pain assessment will help improve the quality of care delivered to non-verbal patients (Deldar, Froutan & Ebadi 2018).

Conclusion

Sourcing and using appropriate assessment tools for patients who are unable to communicate their pain is crucial. Poorly-managed pain can lead to other health complications and unnecessary discomfort and distress.

Thorough assessments should be performed to identify and manage pain experienced by non-verbal patients - being unable to verbalise their discomfort means they are relying on healthcare professionals to ensure they are comfortable and not quietly suffering.

Additional Resources


References

Test Your Knowledge

(Subscribers Only)

Question 1 of 3

True or false? Different people may respond to the same pain stimulus differently.

Start an Ausmed Subscription to unlock this feature!

Author

Portrait of Ausmed Editorial Team
Ausmed Editorial Team

Ausmed’s Editorial team is committed to providing high-quality and thoroughly researched content to our readers, free of any commercial bias or conflict of interest. All articles are developed in consultation with healthcare professionals and peer reviewed where necessary, undergoing a yearly review to ensure all healthcare information is kept up to date. See Educator Profile

It’s not done until it’s documented