Pain behaviors such as grimacing and muscle rigidity are recommended for pain assessment in nonverbal populations. However, these behaviors may not be appropriate for critically ill patients with a traumatic brain injury (TBI) depending on their level of consciousness (LOC). This study aimed to validate the use of behaviors for assessing pain of critically ill TBI adults with different LOC.
Using a repeated measure within subject design, participants (N=45) were observed for 1 minute before (baseline), during, and 15 minutes after 2 procedures: (1) noninvasive blood pressure: NIBP (non-nociceptive); and (2) turning (nociceptive). A behavioral checklist combining 50 items from existing pain assessment tools and video recording were used to describe participants’ behaviors. Intrarater and interrater agreements of observed behaviors were also examined.
Overall, pain behaviors were observed more frequently during turning (median=4; T=−5.336; P≤0.001) than at baseline (median=1), or during noninvasive blood pressure (median=0). TBI patients’ pain behaviors were mostly “atypical” and included uncommon responses such as flushing, sudden eye opening, eye weeping, and flexion of limbs. These behaviors were observed in ≥25.0% of TBI participants during turning independent of their LOC, and in 22.2% to 66.7% of conscious participants who reported the presence of pain. Agreements were >92% among and between the 2 raters.
This study support previous findings that critically ill TBI patients could exhibit atypical behaviors when exposed to nociceptive procedures. As such, use of current recommended pain behaviors as part of standardized scales may not be optimal for assessing the analgesic needs of this vulnerable group.