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Why Pain Can’t Be A Vital Sign

There’s been a movement afoot for several years now to quantify pain as the so-called “Fifth Vital Sign.” It all started as a well-intentioned effort to raise the level of awareness of inadequate pain control in many patients, but has gotten way out of hand. The problem is that the word “sign” has a specific meaning in medicine that, by definition, cannot be applied to pain.

When you hear us medicos talk about “signs and symptoms” of a disease, it turns out that they are not the same thing. “Symptoms” are things the patient experiences subjectively. “Signs” are things that can be observed objectively by another person.

Headache is a symptom; cough is a sign. Itching is a symptom; scratch marks over a blistery linear rash are a sign. Vertigo, the hallucination of movement, is a symptom; nystagmus, the eye twitching that goes with inner ear abnormalities that can cause vertigo, is a sign. If someone other than the patient can’t see, hear, palpate, percuss, or measure it, it’s a symptom. Anything that can be perceived by someone else is a sign. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Musings of a Dinosaur*

Science And The Pain Scale

Every day in the emergency department I am confronted by pain. In fact, the treatment of pain is one of the most important skills emergency physicians, indeed all physicians, possess.

For instance, I recently cared for a child with sickle cell disease who was having a pain crisis which involved severe leg pain. His life is one of frequent, intense pain. I gently, and repeatedly, treated his pain with morphine until he had relief. I see hip fractures; all broken bones hurt. I am thrilled to alleviate that discomfort.  Pain is one of the things I can fix, if only temporarily. It makes me happy to see the relaxed face of a man or woman with a kidney stone or migraine, who suddenly smiles and says “thanks!”

But pain is also the source of so much subterfuge. Emergency department are full of individuals who use controlled substances for recreation. I know because they have pain that is entirely unverifiable. They have terrible right flank pain with no gall-bladder, no pancreatitis, no kidney stone (documented by CT), no pneumonia or rash. They have nothing to cause the pain. And yet, dose after dose of narcotic later, snoring in their ER stretcher, they look up at me with hazy eyes and say, thickly, “Cann I gettt somethinn elsss for paaiin…it hurtssss so…bad. zzzz.  Itzzz a tennn.”

So I began to wonder about science and the pain scale. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at*

The Pain Scale, Animated And Narrated

Here is another blogger’s take on the ubiquitous hospital pain scales. You’ve probably seen some version of this chart before. You may also have noticed how inadequate it is at helping you. Based on the faces, this is my interpretation of the chart:

0: Haha! I’m not wearing any pants!

2: Awesome! Someone just offered me a free hot dog!

4: Huh. I never knew that about giraffes.

6: I’m sorry about your cat, but can we talk about something else now? I’m bored.

8: The ice cream I bought barely has any cookie dough chunks in it. This is not what I expected and I am disappointed.

10: You hurt my feelings and now I’m crying!

None of that is medically useful and it doesn’t even have all the numbers, so I made a better one with all the numbers. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Movin' Meat*

Latest Interviews

IDEA Labs: Medical Students Take The Lead In Healthcare Innovation

It’s no secret that doctors are disappointed with the way that the U.S. healthcare system is evolving. Most feel helpless about improving their work conditions or solving technical problems in patient care. Fortunately one young medical student was undeterred by the mountain of disappointment carried by his senior clinician mentors…

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How To Be A Successful Patient: Young Doctors Offer Some Advice

I am proud to be a part of the American Resident Project an initiative that promotes the writing of medical students residents and new physicians as they explore ideas for transforming American health care delivery. I recently had the opportunity to interview three of the writing fellows about how to…

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Latest Book Reviews

Book Review: Is Empathy Learned By Faking It Till It’s Real?

I m often asked to do book reviews on my blog and I rarely agree to them. This is because it takes me a long time to read a book and then if I don t enjoy it I figure the author would rather me remain silent than publish my…

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The Spirit Of The Place: Samuel Shem’s New Book May Depress You

When I was in medical school I read Samuel Shem s House Of God as a right of passage. At the time I found it to be a cynical yet eerily accurate portrayal of the underbelly of academic medicine. I gained comfort from its gallows humor and it made me…

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Eat To Save Your Life: Another Half-True Diet Book

I am hesitant to review diet books because they are so often a tangled mess of fact and fiction. Teasing out their truth from falsehood is about as exhausting as delousing a long-haired elementary school student. However after being approached by the authors’ PR agency with the promise of a…

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