BACKGROUND: Because of concerns about masking important physical findings, there is controversy surrounding whether it is safe to provide analgesia to patients with undifferentiated abdominal pain. The purpose of this study was to address the effects of analgesia on the physical examination and diagnostic accuracy for patients with abdominal pain. STUDY DESIGN: The study was a prospective, double-blind clinical trial in which adult Emergency Department (ED) patients with undifferentiated abdominal pain were randomized to receive placebo (control group, n = 36) or morphine sulphate (MS group, n = 38). Diagnostic and physical examination assessments were recorded before and after a 60-minute period during which study medication was titrated. Diagnostic accuracy and physical examination changes were compared between groups using univariate statistical analyses. RESULTS: There were no differences between control and MS groups with respect to changes in physical or diagnostic accuracy. The overall likelihood of change in severity of tenderness was similar in MS (37.7%) as compared with control (35.3%) patients (risk ratio [RR] 1.07, 95% confidence interval [CI] 0.64-1.78). MS patients were no more likely than controls to have a change in pain location (34.0% versus 41.2%, RR 0.82, 95% CI 0.50-1.36). Diagnostic accuracy did not differ between MS and control groups (64.2% versus 66.7%, RR 0.96, 95% CI 0.73-1.27). There were no differences between groups with respect to likelihood of any change occurring in the diagnostic list (37.7% versus 31.4%, RR 1.20, 95% CI 0.71-2.05). Correlation with clinical course and final diagnosis revealed no instance of masking of physical examination findings. CONCLUSIONS: Results of this study support a practice of early provision of analgesia to patients with undifferentiated abdominal pain.
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