Hospital Pain Care Needs Improvement

By Barby Ingle, Columnist 

Most hospital staffs are poorly trained in pain management, in my opinion. They are used to acute emergency situations and seeing many of the same ones over and over. So when a “zebra” (someone with a complex chronic condition) gets pushed in on a stretcher, they tend to have thoughts like these:

“Oh boy, I am going to have to work.”

“I don’t believe that this person is as bad as they say.”

“I have seen others in worse physical condition and this person looks ‘normal’ so they can’t be experiencing what they say is going on.”

I had an emergency room doctor tell me once that I didn’t have a blocked bladder. He got out a machine to measure how full my bladder was, but I think he never even turned it on. He said my bladder was empty.

I was in so much pain at the time that I told him he was reading it wrong and that my bladder was extremely full and hurt dramatically. I begged him use a catheter on me. Finally, probably after being sick of hearing me cry out in pain, he let the nurse use a catheter. Guess what? I was right. After my bladder was drained, the pain subsided and I was released to go home. The doctor apologized.

Another time I was taken to the hospital with multiple kidney stones. The ER rooms were full and patients on stretchers were lining the hallways. I was quietly crying from pain, curled up in a ball on my stretcher, watching as other patients were being paid attention to and given pain care. What were they doing different than me? They were loud and obnoxious.

I finally reached my breaking point. I allowed myself to yell out in pain and a few choice words also followed. In less than a minute, a nurse who had told me before that she couldn't give me anything for pain until they got me in a room was beside me with a dose of pain medication.

I know my body. Most people living with a chronic condition know their body and what is new, different, worse, or better. We just know. It’s time that providers trust us and realize that we are there for a reason. The vast majority of us are not trying to score opioids, but trying to get relief because we have reached our breaking point. 

One of the most important issues in an emergency room after lifesaving measures is the patient’s pain care. This is especially true in an acute situation, which is typically why we go to the emergency room in the first place. I don’t know many people who go to the ER or are hospitalized for chronic pain only.

The need for optimal pain care during hospitalization is high, but unfortunately proper and timely pain care is hit and miss at best.  

That’s why Pain News Network and the International Pain Foundation (IPain) are conducting a survey of pain patients about their treatment in hospitals.

The survey, which you can take by clicking here, will help us document how bad the problem is and what can be done to fix it.

Patients who try to be their own best advocate and take personal responsibility for their health should not be discarded because addicts or a small number of pain patients are abusing medications. Yes, abuse needs to be addressed. But pain should not be neglected. Controlling pain is important to the overall outcome of the emergency situation.

In past columns I have discussed the importance of asking for your pain medication at least 30 minutes before you may need them while in the hospital. That is because hospital nurses are trained to wait for you to ask for the medication before they order it -- even if the provider has it marked in your chart that pain medication is allowed. If you do not know to ask, your pain cycles and levels will become harder to control. I have been in this situation many times myself.

I know if I go to the hospital closest to my house, I will not get as good assistance with pain management as I would if I drove a little farther to another hospital. I have to consider other issues as well, such as how long I may have to stay at the hospital, will they have my regular medications, and will they have a staff that understands reflex sympathetic dystrophy and the secondary challenges that come with treating a ‘thick case file’ patient.

When I know I am being listened to as a valuable and knowledgeable patient and team member in my care, my pain will be better managed and I will rate the hospital higher in patient satisfaction surveys. When my underlying condition is not addressed, they’ll get a negative review.

Should a doctor be worried about how I am going to score them? Not if they treat me fairly, individually and as part of my treatment team. Does this mean they should just hand me whatever I ask for? No. It means that they need to use my personal assessment of pain as part of the planning for my care. Not doing so is neglecting the patient.

Barby Ingle suffers from Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (RSD) and endometriosis. Barby is a chronic pain educator, patient advocate, and president of the International Pain Foundation. She is also a motivational speaker and best-selling author on pain topics.

More information about Barby can be found at her website.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.