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Observation Scales for Pain Assessment in Older Adults With Cognitive Impairments or Communication Difficulties

van Herk, Rhodee; van Dijk, Monique; Baar, Frans P.M.; Tibboel, Dick; de Wit, Rianne


Background: Several pain observation scales have been developed to accurately assess and manage pain in older adults with severe cognitive impairments, communication difficulties, or both.

Objective: To review relevant pain observation scales and the psychometric qualities of these scales.

Methods: The literature was searched for articles reporting the use of a pain observation scale in an empirical study and describing psychometric properties in older adults with cognitive impairments, communication difficulties, or both.

Results: Thirteen pain observation scales were included. Scales differed in numbers of items, types of categories, and psychometric properties. Facial expression, vocalization, motor behavior, and social behavior or mood are categories present in most of the scales. In terms of reliability and validity, however, most studies are too limited or incomplete to allow definite conclusions to be drawn about usefulness in daily practice.

Discussion: As different methods of evaluating reliability and validity were used, and different aims (e.g., type of pain) were pursued, the available scales cannot be compared easily. Nevertheless, a few are promising, given preliminary results. These should be examined further on psychometric properties and usefulness in different populations because optimal pain assessment is necessary for efficient and effective pain treatment.

Rhodee van Herk, MA, is PhD student, Pain Expertise Center, Erasmus MC, Rotterdam, The Netherlands.

Monique van Dijk, PhD, is Senior Researcher, Quality of Care; and Dick Tibboel, PhD, is Professor, Department of Pediatric Surgery, Erasmus MC-Sophia Children's Hospital, Rotterdam, The Netherlands.

Frans P.M. Baar, MD, is Head of Nursing Home, Laurens, Antonius IJsselmonde, Rotterdam, The Netherlands.

Rianne de Wit, PhD, is Professor, Department of Nursing Sciences, Maastricht University en University Hospital Maastricht, The Netherlands.

Accepted for publication August 14, 2006.

Thank you to J. Hagoort for help in preparing the manuscript.

Corresponding author: Rhodee van Herk, MA, Pain Expertise Center, Erasmus MC, V019, P.O. Box 2040, 3000 CA Rotterdam, The Netherlands (e-mail:

© 2007 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.