Pain Is a Vital Sign

By Roger Chriss, Columnist

Pain is a vital sign because it is vitally important. In fact, pain is what brings most people to a doctor, whether it’s their primary care physician or an emergency room doctor. And identifying the cause of the pain and figuring out how to address it is fundamental to medical care.

But pain cannot be objectively measured. And so some people trivialize or criticize its relevance.

“Unlike heart rate or blood pressure, there is no objective way to measure (pain). Doctors and nurses must depend on patients to report the intensity level of their pain, which provides an opening for addicts to abuse the system,” Hadley Manning recently wrote in an op/ed in The Oklahoman.  "Pain shouldn't be considered a vital sign."

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The American Medical Association (AMA) also takes a dim view of pain, passing a resolution last year recommending that pain be removed as the “fifth vital sign” in professional medical standards.

"Just as we now know (the) earth is not flat, we know that pain is not a vital sign. Let's remove that from the lexicon," James Milam, MD, an AMA delegate told MedPage Today.

While it is true that there is no way to objectively measure pain, this is hardly unique to pain. After all, many health conditions that doctors deal with cannot be objectively measured:

  • In gastroenterology: appetite, nausea, or fullness
  • In neurology: numbness or tingling, muscle spasms, or loss of balance
  • In ophthalmology: double vision, light sensitivity, or blind spots
  • In otolaryngology: tinnitus, dizziness, or difficulty swallowing
  • In psychiatry: anxiety, depression, mania, or psychosis

This is part of why medicine is both an art and a science. Clinicians have to work directly with people and not just numbers and algorithms. Various instruments exist to formalize this process, including disability indexes for the neck and lower back, and a method for measuring adult depression.

Pain is included in many such instruments. And there are instruments that attempt to quantify pain. For instance, the Mankoski Pain Scale tries to characterize pain in a clinically useful way. The 0 to 10 scale goes from “Pain free” to “Can’t be ignored for more than 30 minutes” to “Pain makes you pass out.”

A number of medical conditions involve pain severe enough to be incapacitating or even crippling. Prevention Magazine put together a list of “The 10 Most Painful Conditions,” which includes kidney stones, postherpetic neuralgia, and cluster headaches.

To be clear, the abdominal pain of kidney stones is not just a “tummy ache,” but more like having your kidney sucked out through your navel. The pain of neuralgia is not just “numb toes and other woes,” but the agonizing burning that makes even a light touch a terrifying prospect. And a cluster headache is not a big “ice cream headache,” but an utterly incapacitating attack. You lay on the floor in a fetal position without even the mental resources to wonder if anyone will help.

Of course, pain can also be psychiatric in origin. The book Is It All In Your Head? True Stories of Imaginary Illness by neurologist Suzanne O’Sullivan, MD, describes how medically unexplained symptoms can be psychosomatic in nature but are nonetheless clinically real, and how a skilled specialist can make the distinction between organic and psychiatric causes of pain.

Thus, pain is a vital sign that cannot be ignored. It is the primary way that the human body communicates its needs and troubles. And it is the means by which people describe their medical problems.

Claims that patient complaints about pain create an “opening for addicts to abuse the system” ignore how healthcare works. Physicians don’t just look at a patient’s “pain score” and then write a prescription. They assess and evaluate the patient, and come to a diagnosis based on a combination of their clinical skills, lab work and testing.

And physicians sometimes err on the side of caution about patients’ descriptions of pain. The National Institutes of Health found that pain is often underestimated in women and racial minorities and often undertreated in socioeconomically disadvantaged groups.

While some patients may exploit the desire of a physician to help, it is also true that some physicians may ignore a patient’s legitimate need for help. Facile critiques that oversimplify the complexities of modern pain management diminish both the hard work of healthcare professionals and the suffering of people dealing with painful medical disorders.

Although pain is personal, subjective and not readily measured, it is very real. To diminish its importance because of an impractical standard of objectivity is to miss the fact that medicine is about relieving suffering.

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Roger Chriss lives with Ehlers Danlos syndrome and is a proud member of the Ehlers-Danlos Society.

Roger is a technical consultant in Washington state, where he specializes in mathematics and research.

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.