Clinical Interpretation of Self-Reported Pain Scores in Children with Acute Pain

J Pediatr. 2022 Jan;240:192-198.e2. doi: 10.1016/j.jpeds.2021.08.071. Epub 2021 Aug 31.


Objective: To identify self-reported pain scores that best represent categories of no pain, mild, moderate, and severe pain in children, and a pain score that accurately represents a child's perceived need for medication, that is, a minimum pain score at which a child would want an analgesic.

Study design: Prospective cross-sectional cohort study of children aged 6-17 years presenting to a pediatric emergency department with painful and nonpainful conditions. Pain was measured using the 10-point Verbal Numerical Rating Scale. Receiver operating characteristic -based methodology was used to determine pain scores that best differentiated no pain from mild pain, mild pain from moderate pain, and moderate pain from severe pain. Descriptive statistics were used to determine the perceived need for medication.

Results: We analyzed data from 548 children (51.3% female, 61.9% with a painful condition). The scores that best represent categories of pain intensity are as follows: 0-1 for no pain; 2-5 for mild pain; 6-7 for moderate pain; and 8-10 for severe pain. The area under the curve for the cut points differentiating each category ranged from 0.76 to 0.88. The median pain score representing the perceived need for medication was 6 (IQR, 4-7; range, 0-10).

Conclusions: We identified population-level self-reported pain scores in children associated with categories of pain intensity that differ from scores conventionally used. Implementing our findings may provide a more accurate representation of the clinical meaning of pain scores and reduce selection bias in research. Our findings do not support the use of pain scores in isolation for clinical decision making or the use of a pain score threshold to represent a child's perceived need for medication.

Keywords: analgesia; emergency department; emergency medicine; pain assessment; pain intensity; pain scale; perceived need for medication; verbal numerical rating scale.

Publication types

  • Observational Study
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Acute Pain / diagnosis
  • Acute Pain / psychology*
  • Adolescent
  • Child
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Emergency Service, Hospital / statistics & numerical data
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Pain Measurement / standards*
  • Prospective Studies
  • Self Report