PEM Playbook – Pediatric Pain

Originally published at Pediatric Emergency Playbook on January 1, 2017 – Visit to listen to accompanying podcast. Reposted with permission.

Follow Dr. Tim Horeczko on twitter @EMTogether

N.B.: This month’s show notes are a departure from the usual summary.  Below is a reprint (with permission) of a soon-to-be released chapter, Horeczko T. “Acute Pain in Children”. In Management of Pain and Procedural Sedation in Acute Care. Strayer R, Motov S, Nelson L (eds). 2017.  Rather than the customary blog post summary, the full chapter (with links) is provided as a virtual reference.


Pain is multifactorial: it is comprised of physical, psychological, emotional, cultural, and contextual features.  In children often the predominant feature may not be initially apparent.  Although clinicians may focus on the physical component of pain, much time, energy, and suffering can be saved through a holistic approach.  What is the age and developmental stage of the child?  How is the child reacting to his condition?  What are the circumstances?  What is the family or caregiver dynamic?

We rely much on how patients and families interact with us to gauge pain.  Assessing and managing children’s pain can be challenging, because they may not exhibit typically recognized signs and symptoms (Srouji 2010).  Further, children participate in and absorb their family’s culture and specific personality from a very young age (Finley 2009).  Knowing the context of the episode may help.  For example, a very anxious caregiver can easily transmit his or her anxiety to the child, which may either inhibit or amplify presentation of symptoms (Bearden 2012).

The guiding principles in pediatric pain assessment and management are: know the childknow the family; and know the physiology.  Children have long suffered from an under-treatment of their pain, due both to our incomplete acknowledgement of their pain and our fear of treatment (Howard 2003).  As the pendulum on pain management swings one way or the other, do not let your pediatric patient get knocked by the wayside.  Take a thoughtful approach: know the signs and symptoms, and aggressively treat and reassess.


Each stage of development offers a unique framework to the child’s signs and symptoms of pain.  In pre-verbal children, use your observational skills in addition to the parent’s report of behavior.  Verbal children can self-report; younger children require pictorial descriptions, while older children and adolescents may use standard adult scales.  In all ages, ask open-ended questions and allow the child to report and speak for himself whenever possible.


Neonates are a unique group in pain assessment.  The neonate (birth to one month of age) has not yet acquired social expression of pain, and his nascent nervous system is only now learning to process it.  Do not expect typical pain behaviors in neonates.  Facial grimacing is a weak indicator of pain in neonates (Liebelt 2000).  When this behavior is present, look for a furrowed brow, eyes squeezed shut, and a vertically open mouth.  Tachycardia, tachypnea, and a change in behavior can be indicators not only to the presence of pain, but possibly to its etiology as well.

Neonatal observational scales have been validated in the intensive care and post-operative settings; ED-specific quantitative scales are lacking.  CRIES is a 10-point scale, using a physiologic basis similar to APGAR: Crying; Requires increased oxygen administration (distress and breath-holding); Increased vital signs; Expression; and Sleeplessness (Krechel 1995).  CRIES (Table 1) was validated for post-operative patients; to adapt its use for the ED, the most conservative approach is to substitute “preoperative baseline” with normal range for age.  Although the numerical values of CRIES have not been validated to date in the ED, the clinician may find the domains included in CRIES to be a useful cognitive construct in assessing neonatal pain.

Neonatal pain pathways are particularly plastic; prompt assessment of and increased alertness to neonatal pain may help to mitigate long-lived pain sensitivity and hyperalgesia (Taddio 2002).  In other words, treat the neonate’s pain seriously, as you may save him long-term pain sequelae in the future.

Infants and Toddlers

This group will begin to exhibit more reproducible, reliable signs and symptoms of pain.

For infants of less than one year of age, the Neonatal Infant Pain Scale (NIPS) uses observational and physiologic parameters to detect pain (Table 2).  A score of 0-2 indicates no pain present.  A score of 3-4 indicates mild to moderate pain; non-pharmacologic techniques may be tried first.  A score of 5 or greater indicates severe pain; some pharmacologic intervention is indicated (Lawrence 1993).

For children greater than one year who are preverbal, a well performing scale is the FLACC score: Face, Legs, Activity, Cry, Consolability (Table 3).

Contextual and caregiver features predominate in this group.  Frequent reassessments are helpful, as the initial trepidation and fright in triage may not accurately reflect the child’s overall pain status.

Preschool and School-age children

Increasing language development offers the hope of more information to the clinician, but be careful not to ask leading questions.  Do not jump directly to “does this hurt?”.  Preschoolers will say ‘yes’ to anything, in an attempt to please you.  School-age children may passively affirm your “statement”, if only to validate their human need for care or attention.  Start with some ice-breaking banter, lay down the foundations for rapport, and then ask open-ended questions.  Be careful not to allow the caregiver to “instruct” the child to tell you where it hurts, how much, how often, etc.  Rather, engage the parents by asking them what behavior they have noticed.  Eliciting history from both the child and the parent will go a long way in constructing a richer picture of the etiology and severity of the pain, and will help to build rapport and trust.

The Baker-Wong FACES Pain Rating scale (Figure 1) was developed with feedback from children and has been validated for use in those 3 years of age and older (Keck 1996Tomlinson 2010).


Adolescents vary in their development, maturity, and coping mechanisms.  You may see a mixture of childhood and adult behaviors in the same patient; e.g. he may be initially stoic or evades questioning, then later exhibits pseudo-inconsolability.  Do what you can to see the visit from the adolescent’s perspective, and actively transmit your concern and intention to help – many will respond to a warm, open, non-judgemental, and helpful attitude.  The overly “tough” adolescent is likely secretly fearful, and the “dramatic” adolescent may simply be very anxious.  Take a moment to gauge the background behind the presentation.

You may use the typical adult scale of 0 (no pain) to 10 (worst pain), or the Faces Pain Scale–Revised (FPS-R).  The FPS-R uses more neutral and realistic faces and, unlike the Wong Baker scale, does not use smiling or crying faces to anchor the extremes of pain (Tsze 2013).


Pain includes two major components: generation and perception.  Generation of pain involves the actual propagation of painful stimuli, either through nociceptive pain or neuropathic pain.  Nociceptive pain arises from free nerve endings responding to tissue damage or inflammation.

Nociceptive pain follows a specific sequence: transduction (an action potential triggered by chemical mediators in the tissue, such as prostaglandins, histamine, bradykinin, and substance P); transmission (the movement of the action potential signal along the nerve fibers to the spinal cord); perception (the impulse travels up the spinothalamic tract to the thalamus and midbrain, where input is splayed out to the limbic system, somatosensory cortex, and parietal and frontal lobes); and modulation (the midbrain enlists endorphins, enkephalins, dynorphin, and serotonin to mitigate pain) (Pasero 2011).  As clinicians we can target specific “stations” along the pain route to target the signal more effectively.

Simple actions such as ice, elevation, local anesthetics, or splinting help in pain transduction.  Various standard oral, intranasal, or IV analgesics may help with pain’s transmissionNon-pharmacologic techniques such as distraction, re-framing, and others can help with pain perception.  The sum of these efforts encourage pain modulation.

A phenomenon separate from nociceptive pain is neuropathic pain, the abnormal processing of pain stimuli.  It is a dysregulated, chaotic process that is difficult to manage in any setting.  Separating nociceptive from neuropathic symptoms may help to select specific pain treatments and to clarify treatment goals and expectations.


Neonates are exquisitely sensitive to many analgesics.  Hepatic enzymes are immature and exhibit decreased clearance and prolonged circulating levels of the drug administered.  Once the pain is controlled, less frequent administration of medications, with frequent reassessments, are indicated.

The neonate’s vital organs (brain, heart, viscera) make up a larger proportion of his body mass than do muscle and fat.  That is to say, the volume of distribution is unique in a neonate.  Water-soluble drugs (e.g. morphine) reach these highly perfused vital organs quickly; relatively small overdosing will have rapid and exaggerated central nervous system and cardiac effects.  The neonate’s small fat stores and muscle mass limit the volume of distribution of lipophilic medications (e.g. fentanyl, meperidine), also making them more available to the central nervous system, and therefore more potent.  Other factors that predispose neonates to accidental analgesic overdose are their decreased concentrations of albumin and other plasma proteins, causing a higher proportion of unbound drug.  Renal clearance is also decreased in the first few months of life.

Clinical note: in the ED, neonates often require analgesia for procedures more than for injury.  Non-pharmacologic techniques predominate (see below).  Make liberal use of local anesthetics such as eutectic mixture of local anesthetics (EMLA; for intact skin, e.g. IV access, lumbar puncture) and lidocaine-epinephrine-tetracaine gel (LET; for superficial open skin and soft tissue application).  Oral sucrose (30%) solutions (administered either with a small-volume syringe or pacifier frequently dipped in solution) are effective for minor procedures (Harrison 2010Stevens 2013) via the release of dopamine and through distraction by mechanical means.  Neonates with severe pain may be managed with parenteral analgesics, on a monitor, and with caution.

Infants and Toddlers

With increasing body mass comprised of fat stores in conjunction with an increase in metabolism, this group will require a different approach than the neonate.  For many medications, these children will have a greater weight-normalized clearance than adults (Berde 2002).  They will often require more frequent dosing.  Infants and toddlers have a larger functioning liver mass per kilogram of body weight, with implications for medications cleared by cytochrome p-450.

Clinical note: some drugs, such as benzodiazepines, will have both a per-kilogram dosing as well as an age-specific modification.  When giving analgesics or anxiolytics to young children, always consult a reference for proper dosing and frequency.

School-age children and Adolescents

This group retains some hyper-metabolic features of younger children, but the dose-effect relationship is more linear and transparent.  Physiologic clearance is improved, and from a physical standpoint, these are typically lower-risk children.  From a psychological standpoint, this group may need more non-pharmacologic consideration and support to modulate pain optimally.


The first line of treatment in all pain management is non-pharmacopeia (Horeczko 2016).  Not only is this the safest of all techniques, but often the most effective.  Some are simple comfort measures such as splinting (fracture or sprain), applying cold (acute soft tissue injury) or heat (non-traumatic, non-specific pain), or other targeted non-pharmacology.

Many a pain control regimen is sabotaged without consideration of non-pharmacologic techniques, which may augment, or at times replace, analgesics.  Think of non-pharmacopoeia as your “base coat” or “primer” before applying additional coats of analgesic treatment.  With the right base coat foundation, you have a better chance of painting a patient’s symptoms a more tolerable and long-lasting new color.

tailored approach based on age will allow the practitioner to employ a child’s developmental strengths and avoid the frustration that results in asking the child to do what he is not capable of doing.  A brief review of Piaget’s stages of development will help to meet the child at his developmental stage for best effect (Piaget 1928Sheppard 1977) during acute painful presentations and minor procedures.

Sensorimotor stage (from birth to age 2): Children use the five senses and movement to explore the world.  They are egocentric: they cannot see the world from another’s viewpoint.   At 6 to 9 months, object permanence is established: understanding that objects (or people) exist even without seeing them.

Preoperational stage (from ages 2 to 7):  Children learn to use language.  Magical thinking predominates. They do not understand rational or logical thinking.

Concrete operational stage (from age 7 to early adolescence): Children can use logic, but in a very straightforward, concrete manner (they do well with simple examples).  By this stage, they move from egocentrism to understanding another point of view.  N.B. Some children (and adults) never completely clear this stage.

Formal operational stage (early adolescence to adult): children are capable of abstract thinking, rationalizing, and logical thinking.

It is important to assess the child’s general level of development when preparing and guiding him through the minor procedure or distracting him until his pain is controlled.  It is not uncommon for acutely ill or injured to regress temporarily in their behavior (not their development) as a coping mechanism.

Neonate and Infant (0-12 months)

Involve the parent, and have the parent visible to the child at all times if possible.  Make advances slowly, in a non-threatening manner; limit the number of staff in the room.  Use soothing sensory measures: speak softly, offer a pacifier, and stroke the skin softly.  Swaddle the infant and encourage the parent to comfort him during and after the procedure.  Engage their developing sensorimotor skills to distract them.

Toddler to Preschooler (1-5 years)

Use the same techniques as for the infant, and add descriptions of what he will see, hear, and feel; you can use a doll or toy to demonstrate the procedure.  Use simple, direct language, and give calm, firm directions, one at a time.  Explain what you are doing just before doing it (do not allow too much time for fear or anxiety to take root).  Offer choices when appropriate; ignore temper tantrums.  Distraction techniques include storytelling, bright and flashy toys, blowing bubbles, pinwheels, or having another staff member play peek-a-boo across the room.  The ubiquitous smart phone with videos or games can be mesmerizing at this age.

School age (6-12 years)

Explain procedures using simple language and (briefly) the reason (understanding of bodily functions is vague in this age group).  Allow the child to ask questions, and involve him when possible or appropriate.  Distraction techniques may include electronic games, videos, guided imagery, and participation in the minor procedure as appropriate.

Adolescent (13 and up)

Use the same techniques for the school age child, but can add detail.  Encourage questioning.  Impose as few restrictions as possible – be flexible.  Expect more regression to childish coping mechanisms in this age group.  Distraction techniques include electronic games, video, guided imagery, muscle relaxation-meditation, and music (especially the adolescent’s own music, if available).


No amount of knowledge of the above physiology, pharmacology, or developmental theory will help your little patient in pain without a well constructed and enacted plan.  Aggressively search out and treat your pediatric patient’s presence and source of pain.  Frequent reassessments are important to ensure that breakthrough pain treatment is achieved, when re-administration is indicated, or when a change of plan is necessary.  This is the time to involve the parents or caregivers to let them know what the next steps are, and what to expect.

Start with the least invasive modality and progress as needed.  After non-pharmacologic treatments such as splinting, ice, elevation, distraction, and guided imagery, have an escalation of care in mind (Figure 2).

From a pharmacologic perspective, various options are available.  Your pain management plan will differ depending on whether a painful procedure is performed in the ED (Table 4).  Once pain is addressed, create a plan to keep it managed.  Consider the trajectory of illness and the expected time frame of the painful episode.  Include practicalities such as how well the pain may be controlled as an outpatient.  Poorly controlled pediatric pain is more often managed as an inpatient than the same condition in an adult.  Speak frankly with the parents about what drug is indicated for what type of pain and that treatment goals typically do not include absence of all pain, but function in face of the pain, in anticipation for clinical improvement.

A special note on codeine: Tylenol with codeine (“T3”) has never been a very effective pain medication, as up to 10% of patients lack enzymatic activity to metabolize it into morphine, its active form (Crews 2014).  New evidence is emerging on the erratic and unpredictable individual metabolism of codeine.  Some children are ultra-rapid-metabolizers of codeine to morphine, causing a rapid “bolus” of the available drug, with respiratory depression and death in some cases (Ciszkowski 2009Racoosin 2013).  Author’s advice: take codeine off your formulary.


Head and neck pain

Most common non-traumatic head and neck complaints can be managed non-pharmacologically (e.g. headache: improved hydration, sleep, stress, nutrition) or with PO medications, such as NSAIDs.  The anti-inflammatory nature of ibuprofen (10 mg/kg PO q 4-6 h prn, up to adult dose) for example, will treat the cause as well as the symptoms of ear pain, sore throat, and muscular pain.  Ibuprofen may be more effective than acetaminophen (paracetamol) for odontogenic pain (Bailey 2013).  For most applications, acetaminophen may be as effective; however, the combination of both NSAIDs is not likely to be more effective than either agent individually (Merry 2013).

True migraine headache may be treated with all of the above, and rescue therapy may include prochlorperamide (0.15 mg/kg IV, up to 10 mg ) (Brousseau 2004), often given with diphenhydramine (1 mg/kg PO or IV, up to 50 mg) and IV fluids.  Ketoralac (0.5 mg/kg IV, up to 10 mg) may be substituted for ibuprofen (Paniyot 2016).  Other specific therapies may be considered, although evidence for them varies.

Chest pain

After ruling out important pulmonary (e.g. the under-recognized spontaneous pneumothorax) and cardiac (e.g. pericarditis, myocarditis) etiologies, many chest complaints are amenable to NSAIDs.  There is often a large component of anxiety in the child and/or parents in chest pain; no amount of medication will assuage them without addressing their concerns as well.

Abdominal pain

Abdominal pain in children is challenging, as it is common, often benign, but may be disastrous if the etiology is missed.  For mild pain, consider acetaminophen as indicated (15 mg/kg/dose q 4-6 h prn, up to 650 mg).  The oral route is preferred, but intravenous acetaminophen is an option for patients unable to tolerate PO, or for those in whom the per rectum (PR) route is contraindicated (e.g. neutropenia) (Babl 2011Dokko 2014).  For children with moderate to severe abdominal pain in whom a nil per os (NPO) status is ideal, consider rehydration/volume repletion, and small, frequent aliquots of a narcotic agent.  Surgical pain is not “erased” by opioids (Thomas 2003Poonai 2014); treating pain improves specificity to certain surgical emergencies with retained diagnostic accuracy (Manterola 2007).  If there is inter-departmental concern about prolonged effects, sedation, limitation in the physical exam, or there is a need to “see if the pain will come back”, you may opt to use fentanyl initially for its shorter half-life.  More frequent re-assessments may help the surgical team in its deliberations.  Transition quickly to a longer-acting opioid as soon as possible.

Long-bone injuries

Fracture pain should be addressed immediately with splinting and analgesia.  Oral, intranasal, and intravenous routes are all acceptable, depending on the severity of the injury and symptoms.

Intranasal (IN) medications offer the advantage of a fast onset for moderate-to-severe pain (Graudins 2015), either as monotherapy or as a bridge to parenteral treatment (Table 4).  The ideal volume of IN medication is 0.25 mL/naris, with a maximum of 1 mL/naris.  Common concentrations of fentanyl limit its mg/kg use to the school-aged child; intranasal ketamine may be used for pain (i.e. sub-dissociative dose) up to adult weight.

Long-bone injuries are a good opportunity to employ a speedy modality that requires little technical skill in administration: nebulized fentanyl.  Clinically significant improvement in pain scales are achieved with 3 mcg/kg/dose of fentanyl administered via standard nebulizer in children 3 years of age or older (Miner 2007Furyk 2009).  Nebulized fentanyl is a rapid, non-invasive alternative to the IN route for older children, adolescents, or adults, in whom the volume of IN medication would exceed the recommended per naris volume (Deaton 2015).

Consider an aggressive, multi-modal approach to control symptom up front.  For example, for a simple forearm fracture, you may opt to give an oral opioid, perform a hematoma block, and offer inhaled nitrous oxide for reduction, rather than a formal intravenous procedural sedation (Luhmann 2006).

Ultrasound-guided peripheral nerve blocks are a good pain control adjunct, after initial treatment, and in communication with referring consultants (Ganesh 2009Suresh 2014).

Skin and Soft tissue

Skin and soft tissue injuries or abscesses often require solid non-pharmacopoeia in addition to local anesthetics.  For IV cannulation, consider EMLA if the patient is stable and a minor delay is acceptable.

Topical ethyl chloride vapo-coolant offers transient pain relief due to rapid cooling and may be used just prior to an IV start (Farion 2008).  Try this: engage your young child’s imagination to distract him and say, “have you ever held a snow ball? You are in luck – it’s just like that – here, do you feel it?”.

Vibratory adjuncts such as the “BUZZY” bee can be placed near the IV cannulation site to provide mechanical and cognitive distraction (Moadad 2016).

Needleless lidocaine injectors may facilitate IV placement without obscuring the target vein (Spanos 2008Lunoe 2015).  The medication is propelled into the dermis by a CO2 cartridge that makes a loud popping sound; try this to alleviate anxiety, just before using it: “your skin looks thirsty – it needs a drink – there you are!”.

As with any minor procedure, when you tell the child what you are doing, be sure to do it right away.  Do not delay or build suspense.

Lidocaine-epinephrine-tetracaine gel (LET) is used for open or mucosal wounds.  Apply as soon as possible in the visit.  The goal of LET is to pretreat the wound to allow for a painless administration of injectable anesthetic.  A common practice to apply LET two or three times at 15-minute intervals for deeper anesthesia, in an attempt to avoid injection altogether.  Researchers are currently working to offer an evidence base to this anecdotal practice.

Pediatric burns should be assessed carefully and treated aggressively.  Submersion of the affected extremity in room-temperature water (if possible) or applying room-temperature saline-soaked gauze will both thwart ongoing thermal damage, soothe the wound, and provide foundational first-aid.  Minor burns can be treated topically and with oral medications.  Major burns require IN, IM, or IV analgesics with morphine.  Treatment may escalate to ketamine (Gandhi 2010), in analgesic or dissociative dosing, depending on the context.  Post-traumatic disorders are common in burns; effective pain management is ever-more important in these cases.


The child with chronic medical problems

Children with acute exacerbations of their chronic pain or episodic painful crises require special attention.  Some examples of children with recurring pain are those suffering from sickle cell disease, juvenile idiopathic arthritis, complex regional pain syndrome, and cancer.  Find out whether these symptoms and circumstances are typicafor them, and what regimen has helped in the past.  Previous unpleasant experiences may prime these children with amplified anxiety and perception of pain (Cornelissen 2014).  Target the disease process and do your best to show the patient and his family you understand his condition and needs.

An equally challenging scenario is the child with chronic pain.  Treat the entire patient with a multimodal approach.  Limit opioids as possible.  As an opioid-sparing strategy or as rescue therapy, consider sub-dissociative ketamine, especially for conditions such as sickle cell crisis, complex regional pain syndrome, autoimmune disorders, or chronic pain due to sub-acute trauma (Sheehy 2015). Intranasal ketamine may be used for sub-dissociative pain control at 0.5 – 1 mg/kg (Andolfatto 2013Yeaman 2013).  Intravenous infusions of ketamine at 0.1 – 0.3 mg/kg/h may be initiated in the ED and continued 4 – 8 h/d, up to a maximum of 16 h total in 3 consecutive days (Sheehy 2015).  In vaso-occlusive episodes, dexmedetomidine has been shown to be an effective adjunct for severe pain poorly responsive to opioids and/or ketamine (Sheehy 2015b).

The child with cognitive impairment

Children with cognitive impairment such as those with various genetic or metabolic syndromes, or primary neurologic conditions such as some with cerebral palsy are a challenge to assess and treat properly.  These children not only cannot explain their symptoms, but they also have atypical expressions of pain.  Pain responses in severely intellectually disabled children include a full-blown smile (which may or may not accompany inappropriate laughter), stiffening, and non-cooperation (Hadden 2002).  Other observed behaviors include the freezing phenomenon, in which the child acutely feels the pain, and he abruptly pauses without moving his face for several seconds.  Look also for episodes of unexplained pallor, diaphoresis, breath-holding, and shrill vocalizations. The FLACC has been revised (r-FLACC) for children with cognitive impairment and appears to be reliable for acute care (Malviya 2006).

The most distressing and perplexing presentation is the parent who brings his or her child with cognitive impairment for “fussiness”, “irritability”, or “I think he’s in pain”.  Often, this is after significant investigations have been performed, sometimes repeatedly.  Poorly controlled spasticity is an often under-appreciated cause of unexplained pain; treat not with opioids, but with GABA-receptor agonists, such as baclofen or benzodiazepines.

Take special precautions in the administration of opioids or benzodiazepines in children with metabolic disorders (e.g. mitochondrial disease) or various syndromes (e.g. Trisomy 21).  They may have a disproportionate reaction to the medication.  Start with a low dose in these children and reassess frequently, titrating in small aliquots as needed.

After careful, meticulous investigation in the ED to rule out occult infection, trauma, electrolyte imbalance, or surgical causes, the child with cognitive impairment who continues to be symptomatic despite ED treatment may be admitted for observation.  However, in some cases, the addition of gabapentin to the typical regimen has been shown to manage unexplained irritability in these children (Hauer 2007) by treating visceral hyperalgesia.


The child with multi-trauma is in need of meticulous critical care.  Frequent assessments of pain analgesic response (typically via the intravenous route) are necessary to gauge the child’s trajectory.  Unexplained tachycardia may be the early signs of shock.  Without controlling the child’s pain, it is difficult to distinguish the extreme tachycardia from pain or from blood loss.  If intubated, control the pain first with a fentanyl drip, then use a sedative in addition as needed to keep him comfortable.

The child under palliative care

Children undergoing palliative care require a multidisciplinary approach.  This includes engaging the patient’s car team as well as “treating” members of the patient’s family.  Examples include the natural course of devastating chromosomal, neurologic, and other congenital conditions; terminal cancer; and trauma, among others (Michelson 2007).  Family dynamics and family members’ needs are often overlooked; the family as a whole must be considered.  Focus on the productive and beneficial treatments that can be offered.  Treat pain promptly, but speak with the parents about end-of-life goals as early as possible, as any analgesic or sedative may have an untoward effect.  You do not want to be caught in the position of potentially precipitously providing cardiopulmonary resuscitation in a child undergoing palliative care, because of a lack of understanding of how increasingly large doses of pain medications can affect breathing and circulation (AAP 2000).

Children with ongoing opioid requirements may present not so much with an exacerbation of their chronic pain, but a complication of its treatment.  Identify, assess and aggressively treat constipation, nausea and vomiting, pruritus, and urinary retention (Friedrichsdorf 2007); treating side-effects of pain management may be just as important for quality of life as treating the pain itself.


Allow the child to speak for himself whenever possible.  After acknowledging the parent’s input, perhaps try “I want to make sure I understand how the pain is for you.  Tell me more.”

Engage parents and communicate the plan to them.  Elicit their expectations, and give them of preview of what to expect in the ED.

Opioids are meant for pain caused by acute tissue injury, for the briefest period of time feasible.  Older school-aged children and adolescents are increasingly at risk for opioid dependence and addiction.

Premature infants present a challenge in pain control.  Their pain is under-recognized, as they often display atypical responses to painful stimuli.  Treatment is equally difficult, as they are particularly sensitive to analgesia-sedation.  This is important, as this group is even more likely to undergo painful procedures due to their higher-risk status.

Give detailed advice on how to manage pain at home.  Set expectations.  Let them know you understand and will help them through your good advice that will carry them through this difficult time.  Patients and families often just need a plan.  Map it out clearly.


  • In pediatric acute pain, know the child; know the family; and know the physiology.
  • Use your observational skills enhanced with collateral information to assess and reassess for pain in children.
  • Treat pediatric pain well and often. Failure to address the child’s pain has long-lasting consequences.
  • Non-pharmacologic treatments for all, pharmacologic treatments for many. A multi-modal approach is the most effective.
  • Neonates, infants and toddlers, and school-aged children and adolescents exhibit specific physiology in expression of pain and in response to treatment. Tailor your regimen to your young patient’s physiologic pitfalls and needs.


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This post and podcast are dedicated to Sergey M. Motov, MD, FAAEM, for his integrity, hard-won expertise, humility, and innovation.  Thank you for making us better doctors, Sergey, and for getting us ever closer to a pain-free ED.

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