Pain assessment for people with dementia: a systematic review of systematic reviews of pain assessment tools

Valentina Lichtner, Dawn Dowding, Philip Esterhuizen, S José Closs, Andrew F Long, Anne Corbett, Michelle Briggs

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


BACKGROUND: There is evidence of under-detection and poor management of pain in patients with dementia, in both long-term and acute care. Accurate assessment of pain in people with dementia is challenging and pain assessment tools have received considerable attention over the years, with an increasing number of tools made available. Systematic reviews on the evidence of their validity and utility mostly compare different sets of tools. This review of systematic reviews analyses and summarises evidence concerning the psychometric properties and clinical utility of pain assessment tools in adults with dementia or cognitive impairment.

METHODS: We searched for systematic reviews of pain assessment tools providing evidence of reliability, validity and clinical utility. Two reviewers independently assessed each review and extracted data from them, with a third reviewer mediating when consensus was not reached. Analysis of the data was carried out collaboratively. The reviews were synthesised using a narrative synthesis approach.

RESULTS: We retrieved 441 potentially eligible reviews, 23 met the criteria for inclusion and 8 provided data for extraction. Each review evaluated between 8 and 13 tools, in aggregate providing evidence on a total of 28 tools. The quality of the reviews varied and the reporting often lacked sufficient methodological detail for quality assessment. The 28 tools appear to have been studied in a variety of settings and with varied types of patients. The reviews identified several methodological limitations across the original studies. The lack of a 'gold standard' significantly hinders the evaluation of tools' validity. Most importantly, the samples were small providing limited evidence for use of any of the tools across settings or populations.

CONCLUSIONS: There are a considerable number of pain assessment tools available for use with the elderly cognitive impaired population. However there is limited evidence about their reliability, validity and clinical utility. On the basis of this review no one tool can be recommended given the existing evidence.

Original languageEnglish
Number of pages19
JournalBMC Geriatrics
Issue number38
Publication statusPublished - 17 Dec 2014


  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Dementia
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Pain
  • Pain Measurement
  • Pain assessment
  • Pain scales
  • Journal Article
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review Literature as Topic
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Review
  • Meta-review


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