Thursday, 21 July 2016

Do something for you today - reduce a pulled elbow

At least once a day, I like to think I have just simply fixed something.  Since I am not very good at DIY, that means finding some other way to scratch the itch.  Reducing a pulled elbow is hugely satisfying and anyone can do it if they know when and how to do so.

Pulled elbow (also called nursemaid's elbow) is not a true dislocation of the elbow but rather a subluxation of the radial head within the annular ligament of the elbow.

Based on empirical evidence, a pulled elbow hurts.  Additionally, there is often a second victim: the person who was involved in causing the pulled elbow (although there isn't always another person involved).  In fact, I was once hugged by a grateful relative after I reduced a child's pulled elbow.  What they don't know is that I already wanted to hug them for bringing me the elbow to fix.

Whatever specialty you work in, there are times when too much of what you do is intangible.  Sometimes I can see patient after patient and despite pouring my heart and soul into what I do, I don't get the feeling that I have really made anyone better.  These days are when I need a pulled elbow to shake that feeling off.  If you ever get the chance, I highly recommend doing it.  It is a fairly easy thing to do and, as I discovered recently, there are so many ways to do it.

When to attempt reduction of a pulled elbow

Before discussing technique, knowing how to do it isn't nearly as important as knowing when to do it.  There are some things that need to be considered before attempting a reduction.  Anyone can fix a pulled elbow, as long as they ask the right questions beforehand.

Is the child the right age?  There is bound to be a bell shaped curve for the age at which a child can get a pulled elbow. I would be sceptical about that diagnosis from the age of five up.

Does the mechanism fit with a pulled elbow?  Typical mechanisms include toddlers being swung around by fun uncles, toddlers being grabbed to keep them from running into the road etc.  A fall from a height is not likely to be a pulled elbow.

Are there signs that are inconsistent with a pulled elbow?  With distraction (not the anatomical kind), have a gentle feel of the elbow.  There shouldn't be any swelling.  There may be tenderness at the radial head but not in the distal humerus.  Feel all of the limb from the clavicle to the hand.  The two places that you are most likely to find point tenderness are the clavicle or the distal radius.

Often, children have had a previous episode.  If everything points towards a pulled elbow, there is no need to do an X-ray before attempting reduction.

How to reduce a pulled elbow

When I first did paediatric emergency medicine, I was taught to extend and supinate the elbow to reduce it.  That seemed to work most of the time.

Then, when I returned to work in a paediatric emergency department, I was told that flexing and pronating was better.  I have been doing it that way since then and it feels like it works more often.

 Of course the scientist in me is sceptical about the change.  Maybe something else affected  my success rate.  So what does the evidence say?  I was intrigued to find studies including other methods that I had not heard of, such as flexion with supination. (1)  I even found a Cochrane Review (2) which looked at the question.  It dodged the flexion vs extension question but concluded that pronation was probably successful more often than supination and possibly less painful.

So, I asked people on twitface which method they tend to use.

While finding it reassuring that two thirds of my colleagues were doing it 'my way', I was also interested to see that many will use a different method and that every possibility of twist and bend/ straighten is felt to be valid. 
I was pleased that nobody said anything about having to put firm pressure on the radial head.  I believe that all recommendations to do this are based in myth.  There is no logical reason why the radial head needs any guidance and I certainly don't press on the painful bit while applying my swift twist and bend.

I was also pleased that someone pointed out that if necessary, these can be left alone to resolve.  They always do, although it might take a day or two to finally slip back into place, during which time there will be discomfort.  I would still advocate reduction as success means that the resolution of pain is pretty much immediate.

Which brings me back to my original point.  How you do it is very much secondary to when you do it.  So, instead of worrying about technique, when the time is right, do something for you and fix a pulled elbow.

Edward Snelson

Disclaimer - I say that there are lots of methods, but my way is the right way.

For general principles of assessing children's injuries, follow this link.

  1. Macias CG et al, A comparison of supination/flexion to hyperpronation in the reduction of radial head subluxations, Pediatrics. 1998 Jul;102(1):e10
  2. Krul M et Al, Manipulative interventions for reducing pulled elbow in young children, Cochrane Library

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Assessing Pain in Children - How Green Was Your Valley?

What is the best approach the assessment of pain in a child?  That is a big can of worms.  We want to understand the pain so that we can treat both the pain and the underlying cause but much of what we do comes from adult practice.  Rethinking our approach requires an understanding of what pain is to a child.  Pain is a very different thing for a child and so our approach must also be different.

Pain is an abstract thing, and the younger the child, the less abstract their thinking is. 

The internet has plenty of comical examples of things that children have written or said that are reminiscent of the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes.  In fact one of the most endearing things about children is the way that they often combine straight talking with unspeakable truths.  The ability to think abstractly and interpret what someone means (rather than what they are saying) develops as children grow.  We tend to develop what is needed for these situations based on experience of past events. To give you an example of adult thinking, I give you this excerpt, involving a word game, taken from a radio comedy with Benedict Cumberbatch and Roger Allam.  I think that this is a great example of how adults use words in bizarre ways and still manage to make sense.

Why does this word play make sense to any of us?  Years of having our minds messed with is the only answer that I can suggest.  Expressing feelings like pain relies on similar processes to that of understanding complicated jokes.

In order to account for these difficulties, some people adopt a standardised approach that allows children to choose how they express the magnitude of their pain.  I carry a card with the Wong-Baker faces (pictures of faces that go from smiley to sad)  and, if appropriate, ask the child to use the faces, words or numbers to say how bad their pain is.  My experience is that even this seemingly child friendly approach gives us the illusion that we are getting a meaningful answer because I am effectively speaking a different language.

When we are asking children about pain, how can we expect them to respond if they have not experienced that feeling before and lack the ability to describe it?  Imagine a nine year old presenting with abdominal pain.  All of the following questions are commonly asked of children in that assessment.  The responses are all real as well.  What I have taken the liberty to add is the internal response (I) that the child is having in their head.

Q. What does your pain feel like?  Is it sharp, burning, aching or colicky?
I. It feels bad.  Burning feels bad.  May be that’s the right answer. Someone called it tummy ache.  That must be it.  Aching.  If I say aching, the doctor will stop looking at me like that.
A. Aching I guess
Q. Does your pain come and go?
I. It hurts now.  It hurt yesterday. I’m not sure what the doctor means.  Why is the doctor still looking at me?
A. (Shoulder shrug)
Q. How bad is your pain? We use these numbers and faces here to help you chose an answer. (Shows Wong Baker Faces scale)
I. What is with all these questions?  Bad is bad.  My tummy hurts and it feels bad.  That’s not one of the choices on the list.  ‘Hurts more’ is there though and my tummy has definitely got worse while I’ve been sat here.
A. Points to ‘Hurts a lot more’ (6/10 on Wong Baker scale)

So what should we be doing?  I am not saying that questions or pain assessment tools are unhelpful, just that they should not be applied unthinkingly.  The trouble is that the child wants to give you an answer.  I think that sometimes they want to give an answer so much that they might give one for the sake of giving an answer. I think that there are two simple things that do work really well with children.

1. Just ask them what their pain is like.  A nice open question will tell you one of two things.  Either the child will describe their pain in a way that makes sense to them or they will make it obvious that they don’t really understand how to describe their pain.  Having no answer is better than a forced answer.  If they seem able to begin to describe their pain, you can progress to more closed questions and a scoring system perhaps.

2. Look at how they are behaving.  A significant tummy pain will usually manifest itself in some way in the child’s posture, activity or interaction.  A child who walks in and plays but says they have severe pain may be proving my point about understanding and describing pain.

Next time you see a child and want to know about their pain.  Ask them in a way that allows them to say what they want to say, in the way that they want to say it.

Edward Snelson

John Finnemore, Cabin Pressure, BBC Radio Comedy