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«October 2000 Revised Edition Geriatrics and Extended Care Strategic Healthcare Group National Pain Management Coordinating Committee Veterans Health ...»

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4. The NRS can generally be administered orally and does not require instrumentation.2 Visual alternatives to screening (e.g., oral, numeric, pictorial) are also reliable and can similarly be used to derive a 0-to-10 score. These various alternative methods are important in accommodating the special requirements of particular patients (e.g., hearing impaired and dysphasic patients) or settings of care (e.g., postoperative settings where oral responses are limited). Some alternative methods are briefly discussed below, and some examples are provided in Section 6 of this toolkit.

The NRS is scored by numeric integers, 0 through 10. The NRS may be used either verbally or visually. Pain intensity levels are measured upon initial visit, following treatment, and periodically, as guidelines dictate.

–  –  –

When using the NRS for pain, the provider would ask, “On a scale of zero to ten, where zero means no pain and ten equals the worst possible pain, what is your current pain level?” An individual often experiences pain in more than one site in his/her body. In these situations, patients may be confused about what site to emphasize in reporting their experience of pain using the NRS. Practitioners should encourage the patient to provide a single, global estimate of pain intensity.

Tips for Successful Use of the Numeric Rating Scale

• Allow sufficient time to elicit the patient’s self-reported pain rating.

• Provide an environment that is quiet and free of distractions.

• Have appropriate aids for hearing and vision available, e.g., charts with enlarged words, numerical scales, anatomical drawings.

• Speak slowly, clearly, and as loudly as needed.

• Involve family members and/or caregivers.

• Use enlarged copies (8½” x 11”) of the NRS.

• Teach the patient how to use the pain rating scale.

• Explain the use of the scale each time it is administered.

• Use the same pain rating scale each time pain is evaluated.


Pain as the 5th Vital Sign Toolkit Page 14

• Provide ample time for the patient to respond to questions.

• If the patient cannot respond verbally, try having him or her point to enlarged words, numerical scales, or anatomical drawings.

• Have the patient provide a single, global estimate of pain intensity.

Suggested Script and Answers to Questions Patient's Frequently Ask 1. (Name of patient) are you having any pain today?

Yes No

2. Please rate your pain on a zero to ten scale with zero being no pain and ten as the worst pain you can imagine. (Show the patient the pain scale) "My pain is a 6."

3. You have reported a pain score of 6 ( = 4). This is a significant level of pain; I want you to discuss this with your doctor or nurse practitioner today.

Frequently Asked Questions Q. "Why are you asking me about my pain?" A. We take pain very seriously and consider it a vital sign. You can expect to be asked about pain each time you see your primary doctor or nurse practitioner and when someone takes your other vital signs such as your temperature or blood pressure.

Q. "Why do you keep asking me about my pain if you never do anything about it?" A. If you are not getting your pain relieved, you need to make it clear to your doctor or nurse practitioner that you are continuing to have pain.

Q. "Why do I need to use this 0-10 scale?" A. There is no pain thermometer. We must rely on your report of pain. You are the only one who can let us know when you are having pain. When you receive treatment for pain, using the pain scale allows us to evaluate whether the pain treatment is effective.

Q. "I don't really have pain, but I do have aching; is that pain?" A. People experience physical discomfort that they may label as something other than pain. This may include aching, pulling, tightness, burning, pricking or even ______________________________________________________________________________________________

Pain as the 5th Vital Sign Toolkit Page 15 fatigue. I want you to rate this aching experience on the pain scale. This will help us in making an assessment.

Q. "What is an acceptable pain score?" A. Every person is an individual. It is best if people determine what pain rating is acceptable for them. Zero pain is not always possible. Acceptable pain relief is a pain level that is not distressing, and one that allows you to sleep, eat and perform your regular daily activities.

"I don’t like this pain Scale."

We know some individuals have difficulty using this simple zero to ten scale. In using this scale we are only trying to get an overall measure of your pain intensity or severity. Your response to other questions will help us understand the true nature of your pain, such as the quality of your pain and the impact of your pain on your life. Perhaps you can think of word descriptors, such as mild, moderate and severe. Remember that 10 equals the worst pain imaginable. Now can you rate your pain severity between zero and ten?

Q. My Pain is a 15.

A. You must be in a lot of pain to select 15 on a 10 point scale. We like to use the scale to measure progress in the pain medications and treatment you receive. Let's look at the scale again and think of the number 10 as the worst pain imaginable and 0 as a time in your life when you had not pain at all. Now, try the scale again.

Alternatives to the Numeric Rating Scale Patients who are confused or unable to express themselves also need to be screened for pain.

The NRS may not be useful for these patients, and alternative methods of pain screening may be necessary. Those who know the patient well may be able to provide information about pain history, typical behaviors when the patient has pain, and activities that may cause pain.

References related to assessing pain in confused and nonverbal patients have been included in the resource list. For patients who are cognitive and able to provide verbal responses, these alternative scales are not to be considered as a routine substitute for the numeric rating scale (NRS).

The practitioner should realize that the most accurate data for assessing pain is obtained in the

following order:

1. Patient’s report of pain

2. Reports of patient’s pain by patient’s family or friends

3. Patient’s behaviors

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When to Screen for Pain The establishment of guidelines for the frequency of pain screening is an important aspect of the implementation of the Pain as the 5th Vital Sign initiative. The intent of the strategy is to promote routine screening for pain in order to overcome the numerous barriers to effective pain screening, assessment, and management that are articulated in Section 3 of this toolkit.

Healthcare systems and/or facilities may want to establish specific policies and procedures that mandate the frequency of routine screening for the presence and intensity of pain. Such policies may specify different frequencies of screening and assessment for different clinical care settings and/or patient populations.

In inpatient and residential settings, screening for the presence and intensity of pain should occur upon admission and then routinely according to established protocol based on the type of setting and as clinically indicated for the individual patient. For example, in the postoperative care setting, pain screenings may occur very frequently for an acute period immediately postoperatively and then decrease in frequency as pain diminishes. In the palliative care or endof-life setting, frequent screening of pain is likely to be a critical component of optimal care.

Alternatively, in the inpatient mental health setting and long-term care settings, initial screening and assessment may reveal a chronic, stable pain problem that requires infrequent reassessment.

Nevertheless, regular screening that encourages identification of new onset pain or acute exacerbations of pain is also necessary.

In the outpatient setting, patients should be screened for pain on each patient visit or encounter, as is clinically indicated for the setting and the individual patient. For example, in the primary care setting, as well as in most medical and surgical clinical settings, screening should take place at every visit regardless of the original reason for the visit. In outpatient and community mental health settings where frequent encounters with providers typically occur, a plan for less frequent, but regular screenings may be appropriate.

Documenting Pain Scores Standardized documentation is an important element of the Pain as the 5th Vital Sign initiative.

Documentation of pain scores is essential in planning and evaluating effective pain management.

Standardized documentation of pain scores will also make it possible to collect data across the VHA healthcare system for purposes of research, evaluation of pain management strategies, and quality measurement. All VA healthcare facilities must implement one of the following

documentation methods:

–  –  –


Pain as the 5th Vital Sign Toolkit Page 17 Electronic documentation of the numeric pain score VHA Information Services has developed an enhancement for the current software version of Vitals/Measurements, Version 4.0 to support the documentation of Pain as the 5th Vital Sign. All facilities that are using the VHA Information Systems and Technology Architecture (VISTA) computerized patient record should enter pain scores electronically, along with the other vital

signs. The pain score can be recorded from one of the following applications:

• Vitals

• Nursing

• CPRS GUI Cover Sheet

• CPRS GUI Encounter Form Instructions for recording a pain score in the computerized patient record can be found on page 33 in Section 6 of this toolkit, together with a sample report that contains the pain score and other vital signs. If you have questions about the software or the instructions, please contact your local Information Resources Management (IRM) service office or your local Clinical Application Coordinator for further assistance.

Paper documentation of the numeric pain score

If your facility is not yet using the computerized patient record, then you must implement a paper documentation system that mirrors the electronic system. Pain scores must be routinely charted on the patient's vital sign record. You may adapt the vital sign record or vital sign flow sheet that you are currently using. If you are not currently using a vital sign record or flow sheet at your site, you may implement a new form. When scoring, use 99 when the patient is unable to report a pain score. Only use 0 when the patient reports no pain or a score of 0.

Examples of paper documentation of vital signs are provided on pages 39 and 40 in Section 6 of this toolkit.

Interpreting Pain Scores It is critical to remember that the patient’s report of pain on the NRS is a subjective index of that individual’s experience or perception of pain, and even more accurately, a method for the patient to communicate with his/her provider(s) about that experience. It should not be viewed as an absolute or objective index that is directly related to existing physical pathology or “cause” of pain. Even a relatively low pain score may represent an intolerable level of pain for some individuals. On the other hand, a relatively high pain score for some individuals may represent the best level of pain management possible given existing treatment alternatives.


Pain as the 5th Vital Sign Toolkit Page 18 It is generally agreed that scores between 1 and 4 are indicative of a mild level of pain intensity.

Scores of 5 and 6 are consistent with moderate levels of pain. Scores of 7 or higher are reflective of severe pain.

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