Pathophysiology, assessment, and management of pain in critically ill adults

Am J Health Syst Pharm. 2015 Sep 15;72(18):1531-43. doi: 10.2146/ajhp140541.


Purpose: The pathophysiology of pain in critically ill patients, the role of pain assessment in optimal pain management, and pharmacologic and nonpharmacologic strategies for pain prevention and treatment are reviewed.

Summary: There are many short- and long-term consequences of inadequately treated pain, including hyperglycemia, insulin resistance, an increased risk of infection, decreased patient comfort and satisfaction, and the development of chronic pain. Clinicians should have an understanding of the basic physiology of pain and the patient populations that are affected. Pain should be assessed using validated pain scales that are appropriate for the patient's communication status. Opioids are the cornerstone of pain treatment. The use of opioids, administered via bolus dosing or continuous infusion, should be guided by patient-specific goals of care in order to avoid adverse events. A multimodal approach to pain management, including the use of regional analgesia, may improve patient outcomes and decrease opioid-related adverse events, though there are limited relevant data in adult critically ill patient populations. Nonpharmacologic strategies have been shown to be effective adjuncts to pharmacologic regimens that can improve patient-reported pain intensity and reduce analgesic requirements. Analgesic regimens need to take into account patient-specific factors and be closely monitored for safety and efficacy.

Conclusion: Acute pain management in the critically ill is a largely underassessed and undertreated area of critical care. Opioids are the cornerstone of treatment, though a multimodal approach may improve patient outcomes and decrease opioid-related adverse events.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Critical Illness*
  • Humans
  • Pain Management
  • Pain Measurement*