Is the pain Visual Analogue Scale linear and responsive to change? An exploration using Rasch analysis

Paula Kersten, Peter White, Alan Tennant

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Abstract

Objectives
Pain visual analogue scales (VAS) are commonly used in clinical trials and are often treated as an interval level scale without evidence that this is appropriate. This paper examines the internal construct validity and responsiveness of the pain VAS using Rasch analysis.

Methods
Patients (n = 221, mean age 67, 58% female) with chronic stable joint pain (hip 40% or knee 60%) of mechanical origin waiting for joint replacement were included. Pain was scored on seven daily VASs. Rasch analysis was used to examine fit to the Rasch model. Responsiveness (Standardized Response Means, SRM) was examined on the raw ordinal data and the interval data generated from the Rasch analysis.

Results
Baseline pain VAS scores fitted the Rasch model, although 15 aberrant cases impacted on unidimensionality. There was some local dependency between items but this did not significantly affect the person estimates of pain. Daily pain (item difficulty) was stable, suggesting that single measures can be used. Overall, the SRMs derived from ordinal data overestimated the true responsiveness by 59%. Changes over time at the lower and higher end of the scale were represented by large jumps in interval equivalent data points; in the middle of the scale the reverse was seen.

Conclusions
The pain VAS is a valid tool for measuring pain at one point in time. However, the pain VAS does not behave linearly and SRMs vary along the trait of pain. Consequently, Minimum Clinically Important Differences using raw data, or change scores in general, are invalid as these will either under- or overestimate true change; raw pain VAS data should not be used as a primary outcome measure or to inform parametric-based Randomised Controlled Trial power calculations in research studies; and Rasch analysis should be used to convert ordinal data to interval data prior to data interpretation.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere99485
JournalPLoS ONE
Volume9
Issue number6
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 12 Jun 2014

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