Controlling cancer pain

What is pain?

Pain is an uncomfortable feeling that tells you something may be wrong in your body. It is a very personal response that is both physical and emotional. Pain ranges from mild to severe. You may have pain all the time, or it may come and go.

Cancer pain may involve your muscles, bones, organs, and nerves. It can be caused by:

  • A tumor
  • Chemotherapy
  • Radiation
  • Surgery

Is pain control important?

Treating your pain is very important. Controlling your pain will help you eat and sleep better and be more involved with activities.

How would you describe your pain?

Your health care team will ask you:

  • Where is your pain?
  • What does it feel like? Is it cramping, pressure, aching, throbbing, shooting, sharp, burning, tingling, or numbness?

Can you "rate" how much your pain hurts?

  • Number scale—use numbers zero to 10; zero means “no pain;” 10 means “worst pain possible”
  • Word scale—use words, such as: “no pain,” or “mild,” “moderate,” “severe,” “very severe,” or “the worst pain possible”
  • Faces scale—choose which face shows how your pain makes you feel
Pain Faces Scale

How does your pain affect your daily life?

  • Does it affect your sleep, mood, or appetite?
  • Does your pain make it difficult for you to bathe, dress, or take part in usual daily activities?
  • Has your pain stopped you from doing things with family and friends?

What makes your pain better? What makes it worse?

  • It may help you to write about your pain in a notebook or jounrnal
  • Write down what you are doing (and when it happened) when your pain is worse or when it is better

How can my cancer pain be treated?

Medicine is often used to treat cancer pain. If you have pain:

  • Some of the day, your doctor may want you to take your medicine only when you need it
  • Most of the day, you will take medicine on a regular schedule to keep the pain away

What types of pain medicines are used?

  • Immediate-release medicines relieve pain in about 30 minutes and work for about three to four hours
  • Long-acting medicines are taken regularly and give a steady amount of pain relief about eight to 12 hours 
  • Most people take both immediate-release and long-acting medicines to control pain

Your doctor may order:

  • Opioidsmorphine, hydromorphone, fentanyl, or oxycodone
  • Acetaminophen—known by its brand name, Tylenol® 
  • Non-sterodial anti-inflammatory agents (NSAIDs)—known by brand names Advil®, Aleve®, or Motrin®
  • Antidepressants—such as amitriptyline
  • Anticonvulsants—such as gabapentin
  • How will I take my pain medicine? 

How will I take my pain medicine?

  • Pill form—the easiest way 
  • Liquid medicine—taken by mouth or through a feeding tube
  • Suppository—given rectally
  • Injection—given as a shot into a muscle or a vein, into your back, or under your skin
  • Infusion—pumped into a vein, in your back, or under your skin
  • Patch—put on the skin, where the medicine is absorbed

Are there any side effects from pain medicine?

  • Nausea—You may feel sick to your stomach for two or three days. This will get better as your body gets used to the new medicine. It may help to eat something when you take your medicine. Your doctor may give you a medicine that can stop or prevent the nausea.
  • Drowsiness—You may be more sleepy than usual for two or three days. Alert your doctor if your speech is slurred or you are very sleepy.
  • Constipation—Some medicines, such as opiods, can make you constipated. Stool softeneers and laxatives can help.

If I take a pain medicine for a lone time, will it stop working?

It will not stop working, but your body may tolerate it more. Tolerance happens when yourb ody gets used to the medicine and your pain is not controlled as well as it had been. Your doctor may want you to take a different amount or different kind of medicine.

Can I use the kind of pain medicine I’ve used before?

Tell your doctor or nurse if you have used a pain medicine in the past that has helped. Be sure to ask your doctor or nurse questions and share any concerns you may have.

Can I get addicted to the pain medicine?

When you have pain, your body needs the medicine to help you live your life more comfortably. Taking medicine to control your cancer pain is quite different from people who take illegal drugs to get high.

Are there other way to relieve my cancer pain?

Medicine alone may not control your cancer pain. Other things to try are:

  • Biofeedback techniques
  • Breathing exercises
  • Distraction therapy
  • Heat or cold placed on the pain
  • Hypnosis
  • Massage
  • Music therapy
  • Physical therapy or exercise
  • Radiation therapy
  • Relaxation and/or imagery techniques
  • Special procedures using types of anesthesia
  • Surgery
  • Transcutaneous electronic nerve stimulator (TENS) units
Last reviewed: 
June 2018

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