Background: The assessment of pain and nociception in non-communicative patients with disorders of consciousness (DOC) is a real challenge for clinicians. It is, therefore, important to develop sensitive standardized tools usable at the bedside.
Objectives: This review aims to provide an overview of the current knowledge about pain processing and assessment in patients with DOC.
Methods: A search was performed on PubMed using MeSH terms including vegetative state, unresponsive wakefulness syndrome, minimally conscious state, consciousness disorders, pain, nociception, neuroimaging and pain assessment.
Results: Neuroimaging studies investigating pain processing in patients with DOC and their implication for clinicians are reviewed. Current works on the development of standardized and sensitive tools for assessing nociception are described.
Conclusion: The suggested pain perception capacity highlighted by neuroimaging studies in patients in a MCS and in some patients in a VS/UWS supports the idea that these patients need analgesic treatment and monitoring. The first tool which has been developed to assess nociception and pain in patients with DOC is the NCS. Its revised version represents a rapid, standardized and sensitive scale which can be easily implemented in a clinical setting. Complementary pain assessments are also under validation in order to offer more options to clinicians.
Keywords: Minimally conscious state; nociception; pain assessment; unresponsive wakefulness syndrome; vegetative state.