Painful traumatic injuries account for a large portion of emergency department visits. Injuries may occur through various mechanisms, and many patient and provider factors affect the success of treatment. Not all injuries or patients should be treated in exactly the same fashion, and an understanding of these factors is important to providing optimal care. Medications, management strategies, and methods of evaluation have been studied with varying depth and success. Regional anesthetic techniques and nonpharmacologic means can help minimize the use of systemic agents that may have unwanted side effects. Diagnostic evaluation should not detract from symptomatic treatment. This evidence-based review summarizes the pathophysiology, historical factors, diagnostic strategies, and demographics that influence the experience of pain and provides recommendations for a variety of treatment options.
A 65-year-old man with a history of COPD on home oxygen presents to your busy ED with an injury to his right hand from a fall. He states that he was walking across his living room and tripped over the oxygen tubing. As he tried to catch himself on a nearby table, he felt a painful “pop” in his hand. He denies any other injuries or pain, did not hit his head, and had no loss of consciousness or vertigo. In addition to his COPD, he has a history of coronary artery disease, hypertension, and smoking. His vital signs include a normal pulse rate and normal blood pressure. He is breathing 20 times per minute, and his oxygen saturation is 93% on 2 liters of oxygen by nasal cannula (which he uses at home). He has scattered expiratory wheezing, but he appears in no distress. You notice an obvious rotational deformity with localized swelling of his right hand. The remainder of his examination is unremarkable. He is currently experiencing minimal pain at rest, but he is unable to tolerate any movement of his hand. An x-ray shows an angulated fracture of the fifth metacarpal, which will require reduction. His family is concerned about the risks of medication you might consider because of his other medical problems. You are concerned too, since the last thing you want to do is complicate this patient’s care.
As you start to discuss a plan with the patient, a 35-year-old female who was the restrained driver in a front-impact motor vehicle collision arrives. Her airbag deployed, and there was significant damage to her car. The paramedics report tachycardia to 120 beats/minute; her other vital signs are normal. Your examination reveals a young woman in pain, with a patent airway, equal breath sounds, strong distal pulses, and tenderness to palpation in her abdomen. She has a band-like ecchymosis across her chest wall and abdomen, consistent with placement of a seat belt. She is neurologically intact and is able to report that she did not hit her head or lose consciousness. She has no other tenderness or deformities. After reporting a normal fingerstick glucose and negative pregnancy test, the nurse asks you if you would like to order something for pain; the answer is yes, but you consider the risk of lowering her blood pressure or changing her exam findings, and you wonder what the safest strategy might be.
As you are finishing your evaluation, a 55-year-old woman presents after she slipped in the shower and hit her right chest against the bathtub. She has a history of chronic low back pain managed with methadone, and she tells you, “I have a really high pain tolerance.” She has no complaints of pain anywhere else, and she did not hit her head or lose consciousness. She has no vomiting or neck pain, and her back pain is unchanged from her baseline. She has no weakness, numbness, or paresthesias, and she denies bowel or bladder dysfunction. Her only complaint is pain in her right chest, which is pleuritic and reproducible with palpation. Initial vital signs are normal, and the primary and secondary survey reveal no additional abnormalities. She appears comfortable but asks you if she can have something strong for the pain.
The International Association for the Study of Pain defines pain as, “An unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage or described in terms of such damage.”1 Pain is present in up to 70% of emergency department (ED) visits.2 It has profound economic consequences, with losses estimated at $61.2 billion per year in the United States.3 Approximately 34% of ED visits are related to injuries,4 and the majority of these warrant symptomatic management. Therefore, traumatic pain management comprises a large part of emergency care.
There has been a great deal of research performed on pain, although particular areas (eg, acute headache) have more data than others. Consequently, recommendations and discussions are not evenly distributed. Indeed, pain management is such a broad topic that fellowships and entire careers are devoted to its study. Numerous studies suggest that, in general, ED pain management is inadequate.5-9
There are many factors that influence appropriate pain management. Patient factors (type of injury, age, medical history) as well as resource availability, cost, and provider familiarity with different options create a diverse array of practice patterns. There is no obvious “correct” strategy to any particular situation, and it benefits both the patient and provider for the emergency clinician to be familiar with the underlying mechanism and treatment options for such conditions. This issue of Emergency Medicine Practice provides a foundation for the management of acute traumatic pain in the emergency setting. While not intended to be all-inclusive, it will present an evidence-based appraisal of issues related to this topic.
As of June 2012, there were nearly 500,000 articles related to pain indexed in Ovid MEDLINE® and over 200 reviews in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. While this provides a plethora of information, not all of this literature is relevant to the practice of emergency medicine. A review was performed, building on previous works10,11 and focusing on issues pertinent to traumatic pain management in the ED. Some 510 articles were identified in MEDLINE® with the search terms emergency trauma analgesia. Additional resources were used, including the Web of Science, The National Guideline Clearinghouse (www.guideline.gov), articles known to the author, and several textbooks.
Many of the seminal investigations guiding the practice of trauma analgesia were performed by anesthesiologists and surgeons prior to the advent of emergency medicine. This does not negate their utility, but, in some cases, this may limit generalizability to the ED setting.
Drug-seeking behavior is a difficult problem in the ED, and it is one to which there is not a simple answer. If serious concern exists, an attempt may be made to validate the patient’s claims (eg, calling the primary provider, reviewing pharmacy dispensing records, etc), but this is often unsuccessful, and the individual solution may rest with the clinician’s judgment or departmental policy.
Appropriate analgesia does not compromise physical examination findings for serious injury and may, in fact, improve the ability to localize painful stimuli. This has been demonstrated reproducibly in the ED setting.
While analgesia may improve comfort, careful attention must still be paid to historical elements (eg, high-energy motor vehicle collision) or examination findings (eg, abdominal tenderness) that may be concerning for serious pathology. A focused examination after analgesia may reveal whether abnormal findings can be evoked in an otherwise comfortable patient.
Pain is a subjective experience, and many causes of pain (particularly neuropathic pain) may not provide objective evidence of the level of discomfort.
Regional anesthesia is an increasingly popular means of achieving analgesia and decreasing the amount of systemic analgesia required. It is useful to have a repertoire of familiar and useful techniques to augment some scenarios (eg, dental blocks for dental injuries, digital blocks for finger injuries, etc).
Many times patients are unable to communicate their discomfort adequately (eg, intubated or demented patients). Painful conditions should be considered as a cause of increased agitation or delirium.
Vital sign abnormalities are not a reliable indicator of pain. In addition to medications that may blunt a response (eg, beta-blockers), each patient’s experience and physiologic response may be different, and some patients may experience significant pain without producing abnormal vital signs.
Some partial agonists (eg, buprenorphine) bind with more affinity than complete agonists. In a patient on a chronic long-acting opioid agonist (eg, methadone), introduction of a partial agonist may displace complete agonists at the receptor site and precipitate a relative withdrawal.
Anxiolysis is an important part of pain control and limiting “wind-up” phenomenon. Often, this can be accomplished by nonpharmacologic means (eg, discussing the patient’s concern, covering a wound, distracting a child, or immobilizing a limb).
Splinting with radiolucent materials prior to transport or manipulation for imaging helps decrease the pain precipitated by mobilization. In addition, it is reasonable to provide additional analgesia in anticipation of painful procedures or transport.
Evidence-based medicine requires a critical appraisal of the literature based upon study methodology and number of subjects. Not all references are equally robust. The findings of a large, prospective, randomized, and blinded trial should carry more weight than a case report.
To help the reader judge the strength of each reference, pertinent information about the study will be included in bold type following the reference, where available. In addition, the most informative references cited in this paper, as determined by the authors, are noted by an asterisk (*) next to the number of the reference.