Parents and practitioners are poor judges of young children's pain severity

Acad Emerg Med. 2002 Jun;9(6):609-12. doi: 10.1111/j.1553-2712.2002.tb02298.x.


Objective: Visual analog pain scales are reliable measures in older children and adults; however, pain studies that include young children often rely on parental or practitioner assessments for measuring pain severity. The authors correlated patient, parental, and practitioner pain assessments for young children with acute pain.

Methods: This was a prospective, descriptive study of a convenience sample of 63 emergency department patients aged 4-7 years, with acute pain resulting from acute illness or painful invasive procedures. A trained research assistant administered a structured pain survey containing demographic and historical features to all parents/guardians. Children assessed their pain severity using a validated ordinal scale that uses five different faces with varying degrees of frowning (severe pain) or smiling (no pain). Each face was converted to a numeric value from 0 (no pain) to 4 (severe pain). Parents and practitioners independently assessed their child's pain using a validated 100-mm visual analog scale (VAS) marked "most pain" at the high end. Pairwise correlations between child, parent, and practitioner pain assessments were performed using Spearman's or Pearson's test as appropriate. The association between categorical data was assessed using chi(2) tests.

Results: Sixty-three children ranging in age from 4 to 7 were included. Mean age (+/-SD) was 5.7 (+/-1.1); 42% were female. Fifty-seven successfully completed the face scale. The distribution of the children's scores was 0-17%, 1-9%, 2-30%, 3-14%, and 4-30%. Mean parental and practitioner scores (+/-SD) on the VAS were 61 (+/-26) mm and 37 (+/-26) mm, respectively (maximal = 100 mm). Correlation between child and parent scores was 0.47 (p < 0.001). Correlation between child and practitioner scores was 0.08 (p = 0.54). Correlation between parent and practitioner scores was 0.04 (p = 0.001).

Conclusions: There is poor agreement between pain ratings by children, parents, and practitioners. It is unclear which assessment best approximates the true degree of pain the child is experiencing.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Validation Study

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Emergency Medicine / methods*
  • Emergency Medicine / standards
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Pain / classification*
  • Pain Measurement / methods*
  • Pain Measurement / standards
  • Parents*
  • Prospective Studies
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Statistics as Topic