One of the most widely utilized pain management strategies in pediatric emergency care is pharmacological interventions using analgesic medications. Some common analgesic medications that are used include acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and in more severe cases of pain, low doses of opioid medications such as morphine or hydromorphone may be administered. The choice of analgesic depends on the nature and severity of the child’s pain as well as other factors like previous medication use or allergies. Medications are usually administered orally, rectally, or intravenously depending on the child’s age, distress level, and ability to swallow. For younger children or those with severe pain, combining acetaminophen or ibuprofen with a short-acting opioid is frequently done to achieve optimal pain relief. Close monitoring of medication effects and side effects is important when using analgesics in children.
In addition to pharmacological interventions, non-pharmacological pain management strategies are often implemented concurrently in the pediatric ED. Some examples include distraction techniques, positioning and massage therapies, relaxation and guided imagery. Distraction has been shown to be particularly effective in younger children and involves engaging them in an alternate task that redirects their focus away from the painful procedure or experience. Examples of distractions used include movies, music, toys, smartphones or tablets with engaging games/videos. Positioning therapies involve placing children in comfortable positions that can help alleviate certain types of pain. Examples include elevating an injured limb or applying gentle pressure to sore areas. Massage applied to painful sites by parents or caregivers can help relax tense muscles and promote pain relief as well. Guided imagery and relaxation techniques teach children ways to relax their minds and bodies through deep breathing, imagery of peaceful places, or muscle relaxation from head to toe. These techniques empower children to self-manage their pain when used independently or paired with pharmacological interventions.
One of the most innovative pain management strategies that has been adopted among many pediatric EDs is the use of virtual reality (VR) technologies. With VR, children are provided VR headsets through which they can be immersed in an engaging virtual world as a distraction during painful procedures. Studies have shown VR to significantly reduce pain, distress and anxiety compared to standard care distractions alone. VR provides powerful multi-sensory distraction by fully engaging the child’s visual and auditory senses. A wide variety of VR programs have been developed specifically for medical procedures that transport children to fun virtual environments like oceans, space or tropical islands. VR is particularly beneficial for wound care, intravenous insertions, bone reductions, and other sources of significant acute pain. It allows for procedural sedation requirements to potentially be reduced as well.
Another strategy employed is the use of clowns, puppets and child life specialists in the pediatric ED. These techniques involve trained professionals using entertaining distraction, guided imagery and toys/puppets to help normalize the hospital environment, reduce fear and cope with pain and stressors. Child life specialists are mental health experts adept at assessing a child’s developmental needs and providing tailored interventions to optimize their experience. They educate children on what to expect, give them a sense of control and prepare them cognitively and emotionally for painful procedures. Studies have shown interactions with child life specialists can result in less distress before, during and after medical experiences.
Non-pharmacological comfort measures like swaddling, skin-to-skin contact (“kangaroo care”), rocking and singing have been adopted as helpful adjuncts to pain management in infants and young toddlers who cannot yet comprehend more complex distractions. These child-centered, relationship-focused techniques capitalize on a baby’s preferences for human contact, motion and auditory stimuli to help relax them and provide a sense of security during painful procedures.
Pediatric emergency departments have implemented numerous multi-modal pain management strategies combining pharmacological therapies, personalized non-pharmacological distractions, emotional preparation techniques, and comfort measures tailored for developmental needs. This comprehensive, evidence-based approach aims to minimize pain, distress and trauma for pediatric patients during emergency care through both child-centered and relationship-focused interventions.