Experiences of acute pain in children who present to a healthcare facility for treatment: a systematic review of qualitative evidence

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Pain is a universal and complex phenomenon that is personal, subjective and specific. Despite growing knowledge in pediatric pain, management of children's pain remains sub-optimal and is linked to negative behavioral and physiological consequences later in life. As there is no synthesis of these studies, it was timely to undertake a systematic review.


To identify, evaluate and synthesize the existing qualitative evidence on children's experiences of acute pain, including pain management, within a healthcare facility.

Inclusion criteria Types of participants

Children aged four to 18 years (inclusive) attending a healthcare facility who experienced acute pain associated with any injury, medical condition or treatment.

Phenomena of interest

Children's experiences and perceptions of their acute pain, pain management and expectations of others in managing their pain. Studies on children's experiences of pain in the postoperative context were excluded as a systematic review exploring this phenomenon had previously been published. Studies reporting on children's experiences of chronic pain were also excluded.


Any healthcare facility including general practitioners’ surgeries, hospitals, emergency departments and outpatient clinics.

Types of studies

Qualitative studies including phenomenology, grounded theory, ethnography, action research and feminist research designs.

Search strategy

Using a three-step search strategy, databases were searched in December 2015 to identify both published and unpublished articles from 2000 to 2015. Studies published in languages other than English were excluded.

Methodological quality

All studies that met the inclusion criteria were assessed by at least two independent reviewers for methodological quality using a standardized critical appraisal tool from the Joanna Briggs Institute Qualitative Assessment and Review Instrument (JBI-QARI).

Data extraction

Data were extracted from the papers included in the review using standardized data extraction tool from JBI-QARI.

Data synthesis

Findings were pooled using JBI-QARI. Findings were rated according to their level of credibility and categorized based on similarity in meaning and then were subjected to a meta-synthesis.


Four studies were included in this review. Two meta-syntheses were generated from five categories based on 21 findings: first, children can express their pain experiences in terms of cause, location, meaning and quality. Children's pain experiences include both physical and psychological dimensions. Children's pain experiences are influenced by their previous pain experiences, pain expectations and sociocultural factors. Second, children use a range of cognitive/behavioral and sensory/physical self-soothing strategies not only to help manage their pain, but also rely on the actions and presence of others as helpers when they are in pain.


Children's pain is a multi-dimensional complex phenomenon relying upon a multi-modal approach to management. Children as young as four years are capable of articulating their pain in terms of location, intensity and depth. The way children perceive, express and respond to pain is shaped by sociocultural factors, previous pain experiences and their expectations of pain. Children, parents and healthcare professionals play an important role in managing children's pain experiences.

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