In recent years there has been a commendable focus on patient-centred medicine, with increasing attention being paid to the timely assessment and management of acute pain. 78% of patients who attend the emergency department report pain, the severity of which is often used to determine clinical priority at triage. Clinical guidelines are increasingly including the timely provision of appropriate analgesia as a clinical standard. Pain scoring has been widely adopted, causing pain to be considered as the ‘fifth vital sign’ by some. Interestingly, there remains little evidence to support the benefit of this approach for patients. The aim of this review is to explore some of the assumptions that made in defining and addressing ‘pain’, and to explore whether it is truly ‘nociception’ or ‘suffering’ that ought to be addressed. Through two thought experiments, it is demonstrated that the current approach to pain relies heavily on addressing ‘nociception’ but does little to address the ‘suffering’ that is undoubtedly they key determinant of well-being in patients. It is demonstrated that the current naturalistic approach risks neglecting many ‘non-nociceptive’ sources of suffering, including physical (eg, nausea, vertigo, dyspnoea, pruritus) and mental (anxiety, depression, fear, anger) symptoms. In the humane quest to relieve suffering, there is a clear need to examine current practice. Indeed, the philosophical enquiry presented even questions whether our culture risks overemphasising the importance of pharmacological analgesia and calls for emergency physicians to take a more holistic approach to meeting patient needs.
- analgesia/pain control
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Competing interests None.
Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; not externally peer reviewed.