Researchers in the University of California, San Diego’s School of Medicine have published a study on pain assessment in children that might revolutionize pain management in pediatric environments. Using facial recognition software, a new system is capable of estimating a child’s pain levels based on their facial expressions.

Pain management is important to post-surgical recovery, with studies showing that poor pain management results in less successful surgical procedures. Measuring pain can be difficult, though. Most hospitals use a self-reporting system, in which patients are asked how bad their pain is, usually on a scale of 0 to 10. That scale can be hard to make sense of, especially for children. Young children often haven’t developed the cognitive ability to rate their own pain, meaning that others must estimate their pain levels. Nurses often estimate children’s pain levels a little below what the patient is feeling, while parents are generally better at this, but not always available.

This is obviously not a perfect system, and, to make matters worse, it requires another person to be present, meaning that patients can be experiencing pain when there’s nobody there to ask them about it. Periodic checks of vital signs and other data often include questions about pain levels, but that doesn’t accurately reflect when pain may occur.

The study combined facial recognition with self-reporting and outside reporting by nurses and parents to come to a reasonably accurate recognition of pain levels. The benefits are many, as this new system can monitor children for accurate pain levels, something they might not be able to report, so staff can make sure that pain is properly managed. Furthermore, if the system constantly monitors the patient, it can alert staff when the child’s pain levels increase or decrease, allowing for the proper application of pain relievers.