Pain management in critically ill children is complex. Epidemiological research is needed to identify how often patients in pediatric intensive care units experience pain and the practices being used to lessen pain.


To describe pain assessment and intervention practices in pediatric intensive care units, determine the prevalence of pain and painful procedures, and identify characteristics of children with moderate to severe pain.


A 24-hour observational cohort study was conducted in 15 units. Nurses completed surveys regarding patients’ communicative ability. Patients’ records were reviewed for pain assessments, painful procedures, and pharmacologic and nonpharmacologic interventions.


For the 220 patients in this study, pain was assessed a median (interquartile range) of 10 (7-13) times, usually with behavioral pain scales. Sixty-eight percent of patients received pharmacologic interventions and 44% received nonpharmacologic interventions. Fentanyl was the most common analgesic provided. Repositioning was the most common nonpharmacologic intervention. Forty-five percent of patients had pain and 24% had moderate to severe pain. Patients experienced a median (interquartile range) of 7 (2-15) painful procedures in 24 hours. More frequent pain assessments and pharmacologic interventions and the ability to communicate were associated with moderate to severe pain. No patient in the moderate to severe pain category received neuromuscular blockers.


Critically ill children experience pain and multiple painful procedures daily. Assessment and intervention practices vary considerably. Research is needed to establish best practices for pain assessment in patients with limited communicative ability and to determine which pain management strategies improve patients’ outcomes.

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