Pain is a common presenting complaint among emergency department (ED) patients. The verbal numeric pain scale is commonly used in the ED to assess self-reported pain. This study was undertaken to describe and compare pain scores in a variety of painful conditions and identify factors associated with self-reported pain scores.
The study was a prospective, observational, descriptive survey study conducted at an urban university hospital ED. Eligible participants included consenting adults 18 years and older, with an acute painful condition, who spoke English, and were not in severe distress. Through a structured interview, collected data included pain score; diagnosis; medical history; previous painful experiences; and demographic information including age, insurance status, and highest level of education completed.
Among 268 eligible participants, 263 (98%) consented and completed the study protocol. Seventy-one percent of participants were 50 years old or younger; 55%, women; and 68%, white. Fifty-four percent had private insurance, and 81%, high school education or higher. The most common chief complaints were soft tissue injury (33%), abdominal pain (18%), and chest pain (13%). The median self-reported pain score was 7/10 (mean, 6.7; interquartile range, 6-9; range, 0-10). The most common previous painful experiences were childbirth (21%), major trauma (18%), and surgery (14%). Participants cited reasons for self-reported pain scores, including current feeling of pain (62%), comparison to previous pain (31%), and comparison to hypothetical pain (12%). The number of previous ED visits was positively correlated with current pain score (Spearman correlation R = 0.28; P < .001). The chief complaints associated with the highest pain scores included dental pain (mean pain score, 8.5) and back pain (mean pain score, 7.6). Chief complaints associated with the lowest pain scores included chest pain (mean pain score, 5.2) and other medical conditions (mean pain score, 5.3). Factors associated with higher pain scores included younger age (P < .001, Kruskal-Wallis), Medicaid insurance (P = .02), and lower educational status (P = .01). There was not a statistically significant association between current pain score and sex, race, previous painful experiences, or number of hospital admissions.
Emergency department patients with acute painful conditions report a wide range of self-reported pain scores. Participants rated pain based on current feeling of pain or comparison to previous or hypothetical pain. Chief complaints with highest pain scores included dental pain and back pain. Factors associated with higher pain scores included younger age, Medicaid insurance, lower educational status, and higher number of previous ED visits.