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art & science clinical skills: 25

Monitoring and recording patients' neurological observations

Dawes E e* af (2007) Monitoring and recording patients' neurological observations. Nursitig Statidard. 22.10, 40-45. Date of acceptance: July 17 2007

This article provides a detailed account of how to monitor and record neurological observations. It outlines the importance of neurological observations in acutely ill patients and focuses on carrying out observations using the Glasgow Coma Scale.

Emma Dawes is practice development nurse, Hilary Lloyd is principal lecturer, Lesley Durham is nurse consultant in critical care, Sunderland Royal Hospital, Sunderland. Email:

observations and to keep up to date with the clinical skills required to ensure high levels of patient safety and quality care. As the acuity of ward-based patients continues to escalate, all ward staff need to develop knowledge and skills in both the recognition and management of at-risk and critically ill patients (Department ofHealth(DH)2065a).
Observation charts

Clinical skills; Neurological observations; Vital signs These keywords are based on the subject headings from the British Nursing Index. This article has been subject to double-blind review. Eor author and research article guidelines visit the Nursing Standard home page at For related articles visit our online archive and search using the keywords.

THE IMPORTANCE of iinderuking neurological observations in acutely ill patients cannot be overstressed. Neurological status should be observed and recorded accurately in patients to monitor their level of consciousness for signs of deterioration, stability and Improvement. The main methods for undertaking this are by: monitoring consciousness level; observingpupil reactions; assessing motor function; and observing vital signs. There are many possible neurological presentations that a nurse may encounter (Walsh 2006}. The challenge for the busy nurse includes the quick recognition of acute events, for example, head iniuryjnfection., haemorrhage or post-surgery complications and the monitoring and recording of neurological observations. The aim of this article is to provide nurses with knowledge to reliably and accurately monitor and record neurological status. It is important that nursing staff, particularly those working in the acute ward setting, are competent to monitor and record neurological
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A validated observational chart is the most common iTiethod of monitoring and recording neurological observations. Although the layout may differ from chart to chart, in essence, all neurological observation charts measure and record the same clinical information, including the level of consciousness, pupil size and response, motor and sensory response and vital signs. It is only through consideration of all of these components that an accurate clinical assessment of the patient's neurological status can be obtained. Observational charts ensure a systematic approach to collecting and analysing essential information regarding a patient's condition. Such charts also act as a means of communication between nurses and other bealth professionals. The information collected is vital and can be used in the following ways: Toaid diagnosis (Douglas ef a/2005). As a baseline of observations (Crouch and Meurier2005). To determine both subtle and rapid changes in an individual's condition (Crouch and Meurier2005). To monitor neurological status following a neurological procedure (Mooney and Comerford2003). To observe for deterioration and establish the extentofa traumatic head injury (Walsh 2006). To detect life-threatening situations (Alcock etal 2002).

Nurses should be aware when taking initial observations that they are important as they may indicate that a patient requires immediate medical attention. Ongoing observations are just asiniportant as they may liulicLUeLi change in the patient's condition. Often small changes in neurological status are not always obvious until compared with previous observations. A rapid ttecline in neurological observations will alert the luirse Ct) seek tirgcnt assistance. Glasgow Coma Scale 1 he Glasgow Coma Scale (GCS) (Table 1), first developed byTeasdaleand jennett (1974)., is a common way to assess a patient's conscious level. It forms a quick, objective and easily interpreted mode of neurological assessment. The GCS measures arousal, awareness and activity, by assessing three different areas of the patient's behaviour including: Eye opening. Verbal response. Motor response. Each area is allocated a score, therefore enabling obiectivity, ease of recording and comparison between recordings. The total sum provides a score out of 15. A score of 15 indicates a fully alert and responsive patient, whereas a score of three (the lowest possible score) indicates unconsciousness. As well as an overall score, a score for each area of assessment should also be recorded and reported separately. Figure 1 provides
TABLE 1 Glasgow Coma Scale
Response Best eye response > Open spontaneously > Open to verbal command > Open to pain No eye opening Best verbal response > Orientated Confused Inappropriate words lncomprehensibie sounds No verbal response Best motor response > Obeys commands > Localises pain Withdrawal from pain Flexion to pain Extension to pain No motor response (National Institute for Clinical Excellence 2003) Score

instruction on how to use the GCS. Using painful stitmtli Vainiul stimuli should be applied in a careful and purposeful manner once and for no longer than 30 seconds [Woodward 1997a). Under no circumstance should the sternal rub or nail-bed pressure methods be used as they may cause prolonged discomfort and bruising (Shah 1999, Crawford and Guerrero 2004, Watcrhouse 2005). Table 2 providesasummary of the evidence base for different methods of applying painful stimuli. Before initiating painful stimuli it is important that the patient or family members are informed ofthe procedure and why it is necessary. Recording observations It is important that nursing staff record exactly what is being observed as changes to the patient's condition can be rapid and may require an urgent response. Waterhouse (2005) recommended picturing a photograph being taken of the patient that captures what is being seen at a particular point in time. It is important that nursing staff record individual findings rather than comparing and being influenced by a previous set of observations. Nursing staff should not seek conformity with previous recordings (Woodrow 2000). Any concerns about changes between the current and previous recording should be reported and appropriate action taken. There is no published consensus on how frequently observations should he documented (Mooney and Comerford 2003). For head injury patients, the NICE (2003) guidance recommended that a GCS of less than 15 necessitates 30-minute observations until the maximum score of 15 is reached. In addition, when a score of 15 is achieved, observations should then be performed every half hour for two hours, hourly for four hours and then two hourly thereafter. For the unconscious patient, Walsh (2006) recommended 15-minute observations and suggested that these should be carried out more frequently if the level of consciousness is fluctuating. As with any assessment process it is essential to start by informing the patient of the procedure and where possible obtain verbal consent (Douglas eif a/2005). When assessing neurological deficit it is important to record the best arm response. The reason for this is to ensure measurement of neurological status, rather than injury or disability. There is no need to record left and right differences, as the GCS does not aim to measure focal deficit, this should he completed in the limb assessment. Leg responses should not be measured becauseoftherisk ofa spinal rather than a brain-initiated response.
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It is important to note that a patient who is unahle to open his or her eye(s) as a result of swelling or surgery does not necessarily indicate a FIGURE 1
How to use the Glasgow Coma Scale
Observation i Score Method

low or falling conscious level. Likewise an absence ot speech does not necessarily indicate a low or falling conscious level. Language difficulties or dysphasia will make it impossible to make an accurate assessment of consciousness (Crawford and Guerrero 2004) and should be taken into account in the overall assessment process.

Eye opening: If the patient is unable to open his or her eye(s) as a result of trauma or surgery, the letter 'C - indicating closed - should be recorded in the first box. Otherwise this section should be completed as follows: Tlie score indicates the patient's state of arousal 4 = Spontaneously The patient's eyes should open spontaneously as you approach. If the patient is asieep, wake the patient, ensuring he or she is fully roused and then complete the assessment Tlie patient will respond to your voice. T)ie best way to do this is to say his or her name. If there is no initial response, a raised voice should be used. The patient opens his or her eyes to painful stimuli. Ttie best way to do this is to apply peripheral painful stimuli. Avoid central painful stimuli as it may cause the patient to grimace. The patient's eyes remain dosed despite painful stimuli.

3 = To speech

2 = To pain

1 = No response

Best verbal response: Tlie patient may have difficulty in speaking (dysphasia). If so, the letter 'D' should be recorded in the 'none' column. If the patient is intubated then the letter T shouid be recorded in the 'none' column. This indicates the patient's orientation to time, place and person 5 = Orientated The patient must be able to state his or her name, who he or she is, where he or she is and the month of the year. If the patient is able to hold a conversation but unable to answer the questions above correctly he or she should be considered to be confused. Correct wrongly answered questions, but change the order each time to avoid the patient just repeating them. The patient will use random vi/ords that make little sense or are out of context, typically swearing and shouting. Painful stimuli may be required to gain a response. Tlie patient will only respond with moaning and groaning. Painful stimuli may be required to gain a response. TTiere is no verbal response despite painful stimuli.

4 = Confused

3 = Inappropriate words

2 = Incomprehensible soLinds 1 = No response

Best motor response: If the patient is receiving medicines to maintain muscle paralysis Glasgow Coma Scale observations should not be performed. Thisindicates brain function 6 = Obeys commands Ask the patient to perform a couple of different movements such as sticking out his or her tongue or lifting his or her arm. Apply a central painful stimulus using one of the recommended methods (Table 2), The patient should purposefully move the arm towards the site of pain to remove the cause of pain. The patient will flex his or her arms in response to pain but will not move towards the source of pain. Tiie patient will flex his or her arms in response to pain but the wrist will also rotate and the thumb may also flex and move across the fingers. Arms will straighten and the shoulder will rotate inwards when a painful stimulus is applied. Tlie legs may also straighten with toes pointing downwards. There is no physical response despite painful stimuli.

5 = Localises to pain

4 = Withdraws from pain

3 = Flexion to pain

2 = Extension to pain

1 = No response (Shah 1999, Crawford and Guerrero 2004, Waterhouse 2005)

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Recording other measurements Vital signs The Royal Marsdcn Hospital Manual of Clinical Nursing Procedures (Crawford and Ciuerrcro 2004) recommends that vital signs should be recorded in the order of respiration, temperature, blood pressure and pulse (Table 3). Raised intracranial pressure (ICP) will lower respiratory rate and alter the respiratory pattern (C'rawford and Guerrero 2004). This is one ofthe clearest indicators of hrain dysfunction. As ICP rises pressure will be exerted on the hypnthalamus., the thermoregulatory part of the brain, resulting in fluctuating temperature (Woodrow 2000). The brain becomes hypoxic and ischaemic and as a result systemic blood pressure rises in an attempt to perfuse the brain (Shah 1999}. Patients will also become bradycardic; this is known as Gushing reflex (Shab 1999, Crawford and Guerrero2004). Both increases and decreases in hlood glucose levels can occur in the patient with a head injury. Hyperglycacmia increases cerebral ischaemia, reducing blood perfusion in the brain, and hypoglycaemia results in a lack of available glucose to neurones which causes a reduction in function (Woodrow 2000). Pupil response Assessment of pupillary activity is aiicsscntial part of neurological observation and the only way to assess and monitor the neurological status of sedated patients (Watcrhciusf 2005). When examining pupil response it is important to position the patient so that there is enough light to see the pupils clearly but not so much lighr that the pupils constrict. Pupils should he assessed for size, shape and reaction to light (Table 4). Each pupil should be assessed and recorded individually. Pupils are measured in millimetres (normal range 2-6mm in diameter) and arc normally round in shape. A bright light., preferably a bright pen torch, should he sht)ne into each eye to assess rhe pupil's reaction to light. Abnormal pupil size and response together withotherneurological symptoms, such as a reduced GCS and agitation, are an indication of raised ICP (Woodward 1997b). The anatomy of rhe skull means that any swelling or space-occtipying lesion such as a bleed, haemaroma or tumour, will raise ICP. If this persists or rapidly worsens tbe brain tissue will shift and become compressed. As a result tbe ocular motor nerve that controls pupil reaction may be affected resulting in changes to pupil responses. Sluggish or suddenly dilated pupils are Lin indication of deterioration and require urgent medical attention (Waterhouse 2005). This is why it is important to observe and record pupil size and reaction (Woodward 1997b). Other clinical indicators of deterioration such as a

falling GCS are likely to be found before a change in pupil response is observed. Altered pupils can be a response to a number of things, for example, pin-point pupils could indicate opiate use or metabolic disorders, a unilateral dilated pupil may indicate hrain herniation or raised ICP and

Evidence base for methods of painful stimuli

Central painful stimuli Method Trapezius pinch or squeeze Action Using the thumb and forefinger take hold of approximately 5cm of the trapezius muscle and twist. Apply pressure wittl the thumb to the jaw, just in front of the earlobe. This method should not be used if the patient has sustained any head or facial trauma. Feel along the medial aspect of the edge of the bone above the eye for a groove or notch; apply pressure here with the thumb. This method should not be used if the patient has sustained any head or facial trauma. Evidence Shah 1999. Woodrow 2000, Mooney and Comerford 2003, Crawford and Guerrero 2004, Waterhouse 2005, Woodward 1997a, Waterhouse 2005.

Jaw pressure

Supra-orbital pressure

Shah 1999, Woodrow 2000, Mooney and Comerford 2003, Crawford and Guerrero 2004, Waterhouse 2005.

Peripheral painful stimuli Method Lateral finger or toe pressure Action Using a pen apply pressure to the lateral aspect of a finger or toe. Rotate the pen around the finger in opposite direction to the nail. Tliis should be performed for tio lotiger than ten seconds. Evidence Waterhouse 2005.

Vital signs
Observation Respiration rate Method Record respiratory rate and rhythm or pattern, observing for any decrease in rate and altered rhythm or pattern. Record and observe any increase in temperature. Record together observing for any increase in blood and pulse pressure and decrease in pulse. Record and observe for any deviation from normal parameters. Record and observe for any deviation from normal parameters.

Temperature Blood pressure and pulse

Blood g l u c o ^ Early warning score - a physiological scoring system with an identifiable trigger threshold (Morgan et al 1997)

(Adapted from Crawford and Guerrero 2004)

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fixed pupils may indicate severe mid-brain damage nr poisoning (Iggulden 2006). Limb movement Limb movements provide an
TABLE 4 Observation of pupil response
Observation General observations Method Look at the shape of the pupils and their position. Is there any eye disease or medication that impairs either your view or the eyes' response to light? Is the eye too swollen to open? Attempts should be made to open a mildly swollen eye but if it is too painful or the swelling is prolific tbe letter 'C for closed sbould be recorded on the observation chart. Does the patient have a false eye? The size of the eye is measured in millimetres - a guide is given on the side of most neLjralocjical observation charts and some pen torches. Use this guide rather than estimation so tbat the results are objective rather tban subjective. Record the size of the pupil at rest before any light is shone into the eye. Pupil response To check the pupil response, move an illuminated pen ; torch from the outer aspect of the eye directly over the pupil. Tbe pupil should constrict quickly. The pupil should dilate again when the bright light is moved away. Both eyes should constrict when a light is shone into one eye. This is called consensual reaction. These reactions are recorded as {+) for reaction, (si) for a sluggish reaction and (-) for no reaction. (Adapted from Woodward i997b)

accurate indication of brain function (Crawford and Guerrero 2004). It is important to assess and record each limb separately (Wnterhouse 2005). The observation chart should be marked with the letter 'U for left limbs and the letter 'R' for right Hmhs. Table 5 dciiioiistriucs the process of limb observation. Assessment of limb responses provides information about motor function and is best carried out when tbe patient is lying down (Woodward 1997c). Any deficiencies in function may indicate a developing weakness or loss of movementcau.sed by raised ICP (Woodward 1997c, Shah 1999). Limb assessment also assists tbe identification of local damage. Altbimgh it is usual for a hemiparesis or hemiplegia to occur on the opposite (contralateral) side to tbe lesion, itmay occur on the same (ipsilateral}side, known ns false localising. Particular consideration shouid be given to any limb weakness that may be tbe result of past medical history, for example, stroke, where there may be a difference in linib resistance, or general frailty wbicb could influence the patient's ability to offer resistance. It is important to use clinical judgement as well as objective measurement, remembering to record any difference in resistance in each limb separately.

Nurses are accountable and responsible for providing optimum care for patients. Tbe Nursing and Midwifery Council's (NMC) Code of Conduct provides the main source of

Observation of limb movement

Observation Normal power Result Ttie patient will be able to push against resistance with no difficulty. Method To determine whether the patient has normal power, mild or severe weakness. Each limb is assessed and recorded separately. Arms - while holding the wrist ask tbe patient to pull you towards him or her and then push you away. Legs - holding the top of the ankle ask the patient to lift his or her leg off the bed then holding the back of the ankle ask the patient to pull the ieg towards him or her. To determine a response of spastic flexion or extension apply central painful stimuli. If no response is elicited use peripheral painful stimulus.

Miid weakness

The patient will be able to push against resistance but will be easily overcome. The patient will be able to move his or her limbs independently but wil) be unable to move against resistance. The patient's limbs will flex in response to painful stimuli. Arms, vt^rists and possibly the thumb will bend inwards. Legs will pull upwards. Tiie patient's limbs will extend in response to painful stimuli. Elbows, Vi'rists and fingers Vi^ill straighten stiffly down the side of the body. Legs will stiffen and feet will point downwards. There is no motor response despite central and peripheral painful stimuli.

Severe weakness

Spastic flexion


No response

(Adapted from Woodward 1997c)

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professional accountability for nurses (NMC 2004). It lsfssfntial that nLirsinfisratt examine objectively the information gathered from assessments and observations as well as the information previously recorded. Neurological t)bservationscontrihiite to the overall patient assessment, which then forms the basis tor the individualised plan ofcare (Crouch and Meurier 2005). Nursingstaff should ensure that the patient has an appropriate care plan in place and know how and when to take action should a change occur in the patient's condition. Accurate record keeping and documentation is important. The NMC (2007) states that the quality of record keeping is also a reflection ofthe standard ofthe individual's professional practice. All records must be contemporaneous, accurate and unamhiguous. Iris important always to act in a way that safeguards the patient's best interests and this Includes the prompt reporting of abnormal findings when monitoring and recordnig neurological observations. It is important to remember that observation charts, while important, are only one of the many toois available togather information regarding a patient's condition. It is often useful to listen t(] the patient's family or close friends when carrying out neurological observations as they can provide invaluable information about the patient's normal state and can often give an accurate history of the onset and symptoms. This is important in situations where patients may not be able to communicate their medical history. Accountability also involves being up to date with new developments, best practice and ensuring consistency. Nurses should be fully

aware of relevant, credible research and ensure that any patient care given is safe. Guidelines and protocols should be in place in healthcare organisations to ensure that care is in line with best practice. Head injury guidance is available from NICE (2003) and thJoH (2005b). It is important to ensure best practice when monitoring and recording neurological observations. Box 1 presents a quick reminder of factors that need to be considered.

Monitoring and recording neurological observations that are reliable and accurate are importantclinical skills. There are a number of tools, including the CICS, which can be used to perform neurological assessments. Nurses should ensure that they are competent to undertake these observations and use the tools available to achieve the best outcomes for patients. The importance of using clinical judgement and taking appropriate action when changes in the patient's neurological status occur are paramount NS

Monitoring neurological observations: important factors

U5eall parts ., i ! > ' i

Record only what you see. Listen to family members and friends. Report any changes in ttie patient's condition. Do not be influenced by previous observations. Do not use nail-bed pressure or sternal rubs.

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