The objective of the study was to assess patient expectations for pain relief in the ED. A convenience sample of 522 patients with pain and 144 patients without pain were enrolled in a prospective observational study at a university ED. Patients reported a mean expectation for pain relief of 72 % (95% CI 70–74). Eighteen percent expected complete (100%) pain relief in the ED. Patient expectations for pain relief were poorly correlated (r = 0.150) with initial pain intensity. Patients without pain reported a mean expectation for pain relief of 74% (95% CI 71–77) if they had presented with pain. There were no differences in patient expectations for pain relief based on age or gender. Patients expect a large percentage of their pain to be relieved in the ED, and many expect complete analgesia. Patient expectations for pain relief do not vary based on age, gender or pain intensity.