general assessment series
Best Practices in Nursing
Care to Older Adults
From The Hartford Institute for Geriatric Nursing, New York University Rory Meyers College of Nursing
Issue Number 7, Revised 2019 Editor-in-Chief: Sherry A. Greenberg, PhD, RN, GNP-BC
Managing Editor: Robin Coyne, MSN, RN, AGACNP-BC
New York University Rory Meyers College of Nursing
Pain Assessment for Older Adults
By: Ellen Flaherty, PhD, APRN, AGSF, Dartmouth Centers for Health & Aging
WHY: There is significant evidence demonstrating that pain is a common problem in older adults (persons 65 years of age and older). In one study,
50% of adults 65 years of age and older said they experienced pain in the previous 30 days. Up to 80% of nursing residents experience pain regularly
(National Center for Health Statistics, 2006). Although many older adults suffer from pain there is widespread undertreatment of pain. Reasons for
this include concerns related to opioid dependence, the belief that pain is a normal part of aging, and a lack of routine pain assessment. Persistent
pain has been associated with functional impairment, falls, slow rehabilitation, depression, anxiety, decreased socialization, sleep disturbance, as well
as increased healthcare utilization and costs. In 2009, the Joint Commission removed the requirement that pain be assessed as “the fifth vital sign”
due to, in part, concerns of overtreatment of pain with opioids. However, in 2016, The Joint Commission began a project to both revise its pain
assessment and management standards and identified the assessment and management of both acute and chronic pain a priority.
BEST TOOL: Identifying and measuring pain begins with a person’s self-report. This can be challenging in a population with disparities in
cognition, literacy, and language. Simply worded questions and tools, that are easily understood, continue to be the most effective. The best choice for
assessing pain intensity include: the Iowa Pain Thermometer (IPT), the Numeric Rating Scale (NRS), and the Faces Pain Scale-Revised (FPS-R). The
most widely used tool, the NRS, asks a person to rate their pain by assigning a numerical value with zero indicating no pain and 10 representing the
worst pain imaginable. The IPT is a modified Verbal Descriptor Scale (VDS) with seven pain descriptors describing different levels of pain intensity.
The FPS-R asks people to describe their pain according to a facial expression corresponding with their pain.
TARGET POPULATION: All three scales are used with older adults in acute and long term care settings and in the community. While there are
specific tools designed to capture pain in non-verbal cognitively impaired older adults, studies have shown that the FPS-R and the IPT may be used
effectively with cognitively impaired older adults. The choice of a scale may depend on institutional preference or the presence of a particular
language or sensory impairment. The most important consideration is the consistent use of the same scale with each individual.
VALIDITY AND RELIABILITY: All three scales have demonstrated good internal consistency with Cronbach’s α coefficients of 0.85 to 0.89.
Test-retest reliability for each ranged from 0.57 to 0.83 for the NRS, from 0.52 to 0.83 for the verbal descriptor scale and from 0.44 to 0.94 for the
FPS-R. A factor analysis found that all three scales were valid, although the FPS-R was the weakest (Herr, Spratt, Mobily, & Richardson, 2004).
STRENGTHS AND LIMITATIONS: The overall strengths of these scales are their ability to quickly and reliably screen for pain. These scales are
intended to assess pain intensity and should not be substituted for a more comprehensive pain assessment that would include obtaining a pain history
and a physical exam leading to the etiology of pain. For cognitively intact older adults all three scales are effective screening tools, with the NRS being
the most widely used tool. In one study, the IPT showed the lowest failure rates with little appreciable affects associated with cognitively impaired
older adults (Herr, Spratt, Garand, & Li, 2007). While the research is limited there has been some evidence that these tools are effective when used
with a variety of ethnic populations.
MORE ON THE TOPIC:
Best practice information on care of older adults: https://consultgeri.org.
Baker, D. The Joint Commission’s Pain Standards: Origins and Evolution. Oakbrook Terrace, IL. The Joint Commission 2017.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics. Health, United States, 2006. With chartbook on trends in the
health of Americans. Special features: Pain. Hyattsville, MD. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/hus/hus06.pdf#chartbookontrends
Cornelius, R., Herr, K., Gordon, D., Kretzer, K., & Butcher, H. (2017). Acute Pain Management in Older Adults. Journal of Gerontological Nursing,
Herr, K., Bjoro, K., & Decker, S. (2006). Tools for assessment of pain in nonverbal older adults with dementia: A state-of-the-science review. Journal
of Pain and Symptom Management, 31(2), 170-192.
Herr, K., Spratt, K., Garand, L., & Li, L. (2007) Evaluation of the Iowa Pain Thermometer and other selected pain intensity scales in younger and
older adult cohorts using controlled clinical pain: A preliminary study. Pain Medicine, 8(7), 585-600.
Herr, K., Spratt, K., Mobily, P., & Richardson, G. (2004). Pain intensity assessment in older adults: Use of Experimental Pain to Compare
Psychometric Properties and Usability of Selected Scales in Adult and Older Populations. Clinical Journal of Pain, 20(4), 207-219.
Taylor, L., & Herr, K. (2003). Pain intensity assessment: A comparison of selected pain intensity scales for use in cognitively intact and cognitively
impaired African American older adults. Pain Management Nursing, 4(2), 87-95.
Taylor, L.J., Harris, J., Epps, C., & Herr, K. (2005). Psychometric evaluation of selected pain intensity scales for use in cognitively impaired and
cognitively intact older adults. Rehabilitation Nursing, 30(2), 55-61.
Ware, J. Epps, C., Herr, K., & Packard, A. (2006). Evaluation of the revised faces pain scale, verbal descriptor scale, numeric rating scale, and Iowa
pain thermometer in older minority adults. Pain Management Nursing, 7(3), 117-125.
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Faces Pain Scale – Revised
From “The Faces Pain Scale – Revised. Toward a Common Metric in Pediatric Pain Measurement,” by C.L. Hicks, C.L.
von Baeyer, P.A. Spafford, I. van Korlaar, & B. Goodenough, 2001, Pain, 93, 173-183. Reprinted with permission of the
International Association for the Study of Pain.
Note: This is an example of the actual scale.
not shown to
Numeric Rating Scale
Please rate your pain from 0 to 10 with 0 indicating no pain and 10 representing the worst possible pain: _______
Adapted from Jacox, A., Carr, D.B., Payne, R, et al. (March 1994). Management of Cancer Pain. Clinical Practice Guideline
No. 9. AHCPR Publication No. 94-0592. Rockville, MD: Agency for Health Care Policy and Research, U.S. Department
of Health and Human Services.
Iowa Pain Thermometer
Ask the individual to use one of seven pain descriptors (no
pain, slight pain, mild pain, moderate pain, severe pain, very
severe pain, and the most intense pain imaginable) to describe
Herr, K., Spratt, K., Garand, L., & Li, L. (2007). Evaluation
of the Iowa Pain Thermometer and other selected pain inten-
sity scales in younger and older adult cohorts using controlled
clinical pain: A preliminary study. Pain Medicine, 8(7), 585-600.
Figure 1, page 588.
Copyright holder of figure: Keela Herr, University of Iowa
Used with permission of Keela Herr, PhD, RN, AGSF,
FGSA, FAAN, College of Nursing, University of Iowa.
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