Pain management is about quality of life.
But pain discussions have become a pain. So many articles, so many opinions, so much chatter about so many drugs. What is
a clinician to do?
Michael H. Riegger DVM, Dipl. ABVP
To simplify, we need a veterinary pain-score system that is not unlike the in-room human hospital posted system.
The first real discussions of pain came with the British. James Herriot and his series of books starting in the pre-WWII years
with "All Creatures Bright and Beautiful..." discussed pain relief in so many ways.
Impressions of colic pain relief also came along with the British at the Day Crowhurst Practice in Newmarket in the 1970s.
They played pain relief like a fiddle. They knew which drugs provided relief for this and that – and when they failed they
knew which was a surgical case and which was not. They were able to separate small-bowel from large-bowel diseases with the
aid of response-to-pain medication.
The impression left to the observer was that 80% of equine colics merely need the pain cycle broken to effect a cure.
So today we have so many choices, so many tools, and so many opinions. The opinions we face come from academia — research,
pharmaceutical companies, piles of scientific materials mingled with testimonials, and, of course, anecdotal reports. Together
these items have muddled the pain-management picture.
What is the human field doing? Morphine is still widely used, but a morphine therapeutic dose really can make one sick. Still,
its use continues, despite many smoother analgesic protocols and drugs.
Why does morphine use continue when there are so many new generations of narcotic drugs out there just waiting for use? Cost
containment is a basic answer.
Thankfully, veterinarians can use narcotics as we see fit, but humans cannot use the full range of oral analgesics until a
human is in hospice care.
One veterinary concept seems secure: To control pain requires a combination of tactics and drugs.
And, we should focus on quality-of-life issues, not cost issues.
Table 1 Pain Score Indexing
When reading veterinary literature, certainly even the industry pain experts do not all agree on tactics and drugs. It can
As an example, when butorphanol came on the market for horses, the listed dose was 50mg intravenously. For those of us who
started using that dose, we had horses falling off the end of the needle. Scary. With further "field" experience, we could
play the fiddle with butorphanol to use 10, 20 or 30mg to help relieve pain and aid in the diagnosis of the equine acute abdomen.
Now, fortunately, a timely discussion of pain is included in the sixth edition of Stephen Ettinger's "Textbook of Veterinary
For those who are critical of butorphanol, it is an excellent reminder that various opinions exist.
So what are we to do? Follow these seven practical steps:
1. Know NSAIDs.
Pick three, use them, rotate them, KNOW THEM. Know when complications arise and readily discuss issues of efficacy, expectations
and potential complications with staff and clients.
2. Know narcotics.
Pick three, use them alone, use them in combination with NSAIDs, and rotate them. Be ready to discuss therapeutic strategies and potential for complications
openly with staff and clients.