Recognizing Nonverbal Signs of Pain

Recognizing Nonverbal Signs of Pain

The existence and intensity of pain often goes unmentioned verbally due to severe physical weakness or mere incapability of some patients to express anything on account of their infancy or other physical restraints. However, it is possible for the medical team to look out for some key aspects in the person’s gestures that indicate existence of intense pain. Family members who are closely associated with the patient can easily differentiate between a patient’s normal behavior and gestures, and the ones when the patient is feeling discomfort. So what exactly should one look out for?

Recognizing Signs of Pain

1. Infants and Toddlers

Infants and toddlers do not possess the required communication skills to inform their caregivers about the existence of pain or the intensity of experienced pain for that matter. Till then, it is best for parents and medical experts to rely on some non-verbal signs such as:

Facial Expressions: Forming of the vertical furrow, lowering of eyes, tight closure of eyes and raised cheeks, the furrow between upper lip and nose, wide opening of the mouth, agitated facial expression, blank expressions and withdrawal symptoms

Physical Changes: Wariness to move, psycho-motor inertia, protective of the painful area, change in muscle tone and body posture.

Others Signs: High pitched and Incessant crying, irritability and restlessness, lack of interest in surroundings and unnaturally clingy to parents.

2. Adults

Some of the most common non-verbal expressions of pain amongst adults include:

Facial expressions: Facial grimacing and agitated facial expression.

Physical Changes: Changes in respiratory and heart rate, saturation of oxygen, guarding the painful area, writhing, noticeable fall in energy and enthusiasm levels.

Other Signs: Moaning and groaning, restlessness, constantly shifting position, general withdrawal symptoms, lack of interest in surroundings and change in appetite. Another non-verbal display of pain could be when patients absentmindedly crumple a piece of paper or fabric in their hands or toes so as to shift the stress caused by pain.

Scientific Techniques for Pain Assessment

1. Defining Severity of Pain

At times, it is easy to recognize the existence of pain but it is difficult to find out its severity. For all those adults who are unable to tell the extent of pain, doctors have a technique based on ratings of pain on a scale of 0 to 10. Here ‘0’ is regarded as no pain at all, while a rating of ’10’ refers to a worst case of pain. When patient rates his pain levels between 1 to 3 it is considered as mild pain, between 4 to 7 is a moderate pain, while 8 to 9 is referred to as a severe case of pain.

In case of toddlers, who are able to grasp language but are still unable to express the severity of pain, doctors use a technique called Wong-Baker faces pain rating scale. The technique involves a set of four facial pictures ranging from a smiley face to a crying face. The child is asked to pick out the picture that best describes the level of its pain. A smiley face picture is considered as the non-existence of pain while a crying face picture is considered as the most severe case of pain.

2. Toleration Level of Pain

The toleration level to bear pain differs from person to person. Although ‘0’ level best describes the absence of pain, it is often noticed that this no pain level may stretch up to rating ‘3’ in many persons. Doctors need to carefully scrutinize the pain level based on tolerance study and prescribe medications accordingly.

3. Recognizing Pain as per Disease

When we notice that, the existence of pain along with its extent or its location is not verbally expressed, it is often best to rely on the symptoms and previously recorded medical cases. For example, a heart attack is bound to give chest pain while a case of liver cirrhosis might mean severe pain in the upper right abdomen. Caregivers should be alert to recognize the situation of pain triggers in certain patients. For example, a patient may experience acute pain whenever he sleeps on his left side.

Shocking as it might sound, there have been innumerable cases of death due to lack of expression of pain thereby delaying the process of medication. It is a responsibility of family, friends, and caregivers to be the patient’s eyes and ears in identifying non-verbal signs of pain. The same may then be communicated to the doctors to start immediate treatment.

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