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Ten out of Ten

Posted Apr 26 2010 3:01am
"Ten, definitely ten". The stock answer of some people when asked how bad their pain is on a scale of 1 to 10. I guess that gives them a genuine reason for having called an ambulance in the first place. The thing is, that they sit in front of you, no wince, not doubled over, just sit calmly and tell you that the pain in their arm or leg, stomach or back, is the worst pain they've ever experienced.
If the patient is a mother, I often ask if this pain is so bad that it's worse than childbirth, a question that regularly has the pain score downgraded, even if only slightly. Either that or they're superwoman. If the patient is a man, I'll compare it to something often involving a gory amputation of one of their limbs, and see what happens then.
These patients, whilst claiming to be in the worst pain known to humankind, then jump sky high as soon as I take a pinprick's worth of blood to test their sugar levels - a procedure that hurts no more than a minor paper cut . And more often than not, haven't bothered to try taking any home-based pain relief such as paracetamol or ibuprofen. The easiest option is to call out an ambulance and discharge the responsibility for their condition and care to somebody else.
Sometimes, I meet the exact opposite. A patient who's pale, sweating buckets and complaining of a slight ache, 2 or 3 at worst on the pain scale. A patient who is so clearly in distress, but denying it, either out of stoicity (if that's even a real word), bravado or genuine fear of the unknown. Regularly these are the sorts of people who wouldn't call an ambulance until they are practically bullied into it by concerned relatives or friends, or have had ambulances called for them without their knowledge.
In both cases, those who overplay their pain, and those who underrate it, I'm left with a dilemma.
On our ambulances, we carry a very limited option of analgesia, or pain relief.
For kids, we have liquid paracetamol to ease pain and reduce fever. To be honest, I don't know why we have it. It should be in the drug cupboard, in plentiful supply, in every child-containing household in the land. There should be no reason for us to give a 4-hourly dose of fever-reducing, pain-easing medication that can easily be bought at any chemist, supermarket or even petrol station. It can be given in the calm, safe and familiar surroundings of the family home by any medically-unqualified parent, rather than in the scary scene of the back of a terrifyingly strange ambulance by unknown, green-attired, martian-looking paramedics. I know which I choose for my kids. If one of them refuses, then just the mere mention of the word doctor or hospital is enough to get them to down the stuff.
We also have Entonox, a mix of oxygen and and nitrous oxide, often referred to as laughing gas . Like any other analgesic, it works well for some people, and not at all for others. Over the last few years I've found that it works particularly well for things like muscular back aches, releasing enough of the tension in the muscles to enable the patient to get on the move again, exercising those tensed backs, instead of leaving them immobile. It also works well enough to enable a dislocated limb to be reduced, enough to allow transport and definitive treatment at hospital.
Then we have Oromorph, and Morphine sulphate. The same thing, but one is swallowed and the other requires IV administration directly into the bloodstream. These are the ones we use for severe pain. Things like heart attacks, nasty fractures, serious burns and other injury or illness-induced agony. There are other options for stronger pre-hospital analgesia, but these require having a doctor on scene, in the form of either HEMS or a Basics doctor .
The dilemma I have is when to use analgesia, and of which sort.
For our first type of patient, the one in such agony as he sits and drinks his cup of coffee in the front room as the caffeine-deprived ambulance crew stand by and watch, do I jump right in and give him some of the heavy stuff? Do I take his answer as gospel, his pain is off the scale, and needs immediate resolution, and so give him the morphine straight away? Is it justified, and is it necessary? Or do I suggest to him to try some paracetamol first (from his own supply, as I don't carry an adult dose)?
And so, on to our second type of patient. Clearly, in my eyes, in severe pain, but refusing to admit it. She declines the offer of either Entonox or morphine, says she's just taken some over-the-counter tablets, and is feeling better already. Both her clinical observations, as well as my observation of her, indicate otherwise. Do I just offer these patients a seat in the ambulance and convey them to hospital, no analgesia, no treatment, no nothing. After all, they've refused any. Doesn't seem right to me.
In both these cases, the question is one of objectivity vs subjectivity.
Is the pain defined by the patient's experience, or by the paramedic's observations and assessment?
Is the treatment decided by the patient's story, or by the paramedic's interpretation of it?
Which of these methods would leave me to treat the patient the best way possible, and afford my treatment, much like their pain, a score of ten out of ten?
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