Punting the Pain Scale

If you’re even remotely trained in anything related to medicine and/or if you have ever received any medical care of any kind, chances are, you’ve encountered the 0-10 pain scale that medical professionals use to assess the presence and intensity of pain in adults and older children.

Up until I worked in L&D, this scale worked pretty well to guide my practice in terms of treating and controlling pain.  In oncology, I had plenty of experience not only in using this scale, but understanding the nature of oncologic pain and keeping my patients comfortable despite their cancer, chemotherapy, radiation, surgery, and often rather dismal states of mind.

But when I moved to L&D, the way the pain scale–and indeed, pain itself–was approached was completely redefined.

On the medical units, pain was the enemy.  It was something to be kept at bay.  It was to be treated immediately, reassessed constantly, and warded off with some of our strongest drugs.

But on L&D, pain is an entirely different entity.  While some pain in L&D can be pathophysiological in nature, the vast majority of pain in L&D is not only normal, but it’s a good sign.  It’s a sign of a healthy and steadily progressing labor that will eventually lead to the birth of a baby.

Long gone were the days of running down the halls for pain medication.  If a woman wanted an epidural, she faced a 1-hour wait, assuming the anesthesiologist wasn’t in surgery.  If she wanted IV or oral pain medication, that was at the discretion of the OB and myself as the nurse in charge of her care.  Indeed, pain is part of the program on my new unit, and while it is arguably some of the most intense pain a woman will experience in her life, it is also universally accepted by the professionals on my unit as all in a shift’s work.

Along with understanding this new place pain had in my practice, I also began to understand the varying levels of pain tolerance in women and what these different levels and tolerances can mean when attempting to reconcile the subjective information the patient is giving you with the objective data you can gather on physical assessment.

A true story from my orientation experience: my preceptor, Melody, and I were finishing up a recovery on a patient who had recently delivered.  We had stepped out of the room and were hanging around the desk getting the chart ready to transfer and we kept hearing a lot of shouting from triage, and both of us, anticipating a fast delivery, got a little antsy.

About ten minutes later, my coworker, Karen, comes marching down the hall with her patient, a first-time mom whose water has broken and who appears to be in some rather intense labor.

A lesson I had learned early-on in L&D was this: especially in women experiencing childbirth for the first time, a pain rating can be a real wild card.  For some women, early childbirth is the most painful thing they have experienced in their lives, so when you get a first time mom who is having mild contractions but is nauseated and breathing through them as if she’s about to imminently deliver a baby elephant, you have to ask yourself two questions: is she just naïve to pain, or is something else going on here?  In the case of these patients (Karen’s included), one of three things was happening.

Option #1: Your patient has a low pain tolerance.

Often times, this is exactly what’s happening when you get a first-time mom who is presenting with pain that seems disproportionate to her labor stage.  In fact, that is so often the case that L&D nurses can get into the nasty habit of assuming that it’s true all the time.

Pain Scale 1

Pain Scale 2

Pain Scale 3

Pain Scale 4

Pain Scale 5

Karen was very fast to assume that her patient was simply not tolerating early labor all that well.  And in her defense, I was guilty of doing the same thing as were many of my coworkers, especially when it comes to a first-timer who was dilated to 1, wanted to go natural and was already rating her pain a 10/10.  That can be the makings of a very long, painful shift–for everyone.

However, the events of the next 30 minutes would teach me a lesson I’ll remember the rest of my life.

Complete 1

Complete 2

Complete 3

Complete 4

Option #2: Your patient is progressing faster than your objective assessment is telling you.

Yep, ol’ Karen had made a newbie’s mistake.  You see, the alternative to Karen’s patient having a low pain tolerance is this: Karen’s patient is presenting with a disproportionate amount of pain to her contraction strength/dilation/labor stage because her labor is moving faster than what we can physically assess.

Especially in a primip (first-time mom), you can see how this scenario could take a nurse by surprise.  I’d wager that 99% of the time, Karen would probably have been right in assuming her patient was, for lack of a better term, just a little bit of a wimp.  Dilated to 1, having mild contractions and presenting with that kind of pain?  Chances are, she’s probably not going to deliver imminently, despite what it may look like.

However, some women–even with their first babies–move so fast through labor and deliver so quickly that there is little to no opportunity for the nurse to reassess her patient’s pain before the baby is very nearly looking her in the eye.  I had no doubt that the contractions Karen initially palpated were mild.  But what about the one two minutes after that?  Five minutes?  Ten?  Chances are, if Karen had reassessed her patient just a tad bit earlier, she would have noticed a change in the quality of her contractions.  Especially in unmedicated first-time moms, reporting high levels of pain even in early labor isn’t necessarily unusual, and Karen likely had no reason to reassess her patient until the patient was presenting with a more urgent symptoms: the urge to poop, the urge to push, or a panic-inducing level of pain.

However, though that is the likely scenario, that may not have been the case at all.  Some women’s cervixes seem to dilate with contractions that, by all accounts, shouldn’t cause cervical change, and it isn’t until she’s complete and screaming for her nurse that you realize she’s delivering off contractions that are every 5-6 minutes apart and moderate in strength at best.  It’s mind-boggling and rare, but it does happen.

Option #3: Your patient is not mentally prepared for labor.

To pause and backtrack for a moment, please note that psychological distress, whether that be fear, feeling out of control, a pre-diagnosed condition like anxiety, a history of sexual abuse, and other emotional factors can also affect the physical level of pain reported by the patient.  I’ve found that not only can these factors present like pain on their own, but they can also intensify and aggravate pre-existing pain.

A triage patient who sticks with me to this day is a young first-time mom who was 39 weeks and came in for contractions.  When I went to the front desk to bring her back to triage, I found her sitting with legs spread in the assessment chair, sobbing and vomiting into a trashcan with several family members hovering nearby.

As you might imagine, remembering my experience on orientation, I hustled this patient back to the triage room and immediately began to gather data.

To my surprise, as I began to interact with the patient and explained what I was doing and looking for as I assessed her, her pain dissipated before my eyes.  In the end, I concluded she was having extremely mild Braxton-Hicks (false labor) contractions and she was sent home.

As she was discharged, I reviewed what had happened.  The strength of those Braxton-Hicks contractions between the time she arrived and the time I sent her home hadn’t changed.  Her dilation hadn’t changed.  Her baby hadn’t changed position.  And she was still 39 weeks pregnant.  But when she came into triage, she had been crying and puking into a trashcan, and now she was disappearing out the double-doors, waving to me with a smile on her face.  What was the difference?

I had taken the time to build trust with her, teach her about the things that worried her, provided her with reassurance and education so she felt better prepared for the labor that was to come, and eased the worry from her mind.  And that rapport and confidence in one’s nurse can be some of the most potent pain relief of all.

Option #4: Your patient is being induced.

I know, I know. I added an option.  Now, this clearly doesn’t apply to Karen’s patient in the scenario above, but it does apply to many, many patients who will have babies in the US.  I hate to be the first to tell you this, but especially if you’re a first-time mom, induction can be painful.

First, before we even induce you, we have to check your cervix.  That involves a vaginal exam that can be rather unpleasant, especially if your cervix isn’t really ready for labor and is high in the vaginal vault and posterior (off to the back of baby’s presenting part–hopefully, the head!).  Cervical exams in this stage can feel like we’re reaching for your tonsils, and this is just the first of many.

If your cervix isn’t soft and dilated to a certain degree, we will likely choose to give you medication that will make your cervix thin and dilate before we start an IV medication like Pitocin to start, strengthen and stimulate contractions.  The reason being, if your cervix isn’t soft and thinned to a certain degree, it probably won’t open, even if we do get your contractions nice and strong and regular.

These medications are usually given vaginally, so that means another vaginal exam AND the added bonus of receiving a medication that can make you raw and sensitive in the area from which that you’re soon to push a baby.  Note that you can get multiple doses all of these drugs, and you will get more and more sensitive with each dose.  You will also get rechecked with each dose, so chalk up another vaginal exam with every drug.

If your cervix is stubborn and doesn’t want to change with medication, there is a method that is commonly used to manually (physically) dilate a cervix.  Some physicians will attempt to manually dilate digitally (with their fingers), but many will attempt to place a little balloon in the cervix, inflate the balloon, and therefore manually dilate the cervix.  If you thought the drugs were painful, I’d suggest before they use the foley balloon on you that you request to be discharge, pack your bags, and go home assuming you and baby are medically cleared.  (**Little known fact: as long as your water isn’t broken and you and baby are deemed safe after 1-2 hours of observation, this is perfectly acceptable!**)

When your cervix is favorable, unless you are already contracting steadily on your own, Pitocin is next on the list.  This is an IV drug that will make your contractions stronger, closer together, and more regular.  Those super-charged contractions are going to push baby down on what is likely a very sore private area, and most women who undergo inductions typically elect to receive epidurals so that they don’t end up experiencing the full scope of pain involved in induction.

So, with all that said, if your patient is presenting with higher levels of pain than what you’d expect, ask yourself the question: was she induced/is she being induced?  And if so, what with?

To Conclude…

Pain is a vital part of assessing patients in labor, but there is an added component of assessing a laboring patient for pain that the current pain scale model does not adequately encompass.  As a result, the nurse must compensate for this lack when talking with a laboring patient about pain.

To get an accurate pain assessment, make sure your patient feels as supported and informed in her care as possible.  Do your best to encourage and educate her if you sense her tolerance for pain is limited.  Be aware of treatments and medications that may cause the patient’s pain rating to be higher (or lower!) than expected.And of course, don’t dismiss a patient’s reports of increasing amounts of pain as blowing smoke unless you’re ready to catch!

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