Cancer Institute A national cancer institute
designated cancer center

Pain Management

What is pain?

Pain is a sensation of discomfort, distress, or agony. It may be acute or chronic. Acute pain is moderate to severe and lasts a relatively short time (usually less than three months). It is usually a signal that body tissue is being injured in some way, and it generally disappears when the injury heals. Chronic pain may range from mild to severe, and is present to some degree for longer periods of time (generally lasting longer than three to six months). Because pain is unique to each individual, a person's pain cannot be evaluated by someone else.

With cancer, will I have pain?

Many people believe individuals with cancer must be in pain. This is not necessarily the case. Further, if it could not be prevented, when pain is present, it can often be reduced or alleviated. Pain management is an important topic to discuss with your physician as soon as a diagnosis of cancer is made or suspected.

Pain may occur as a result of cancer or for other reasons. It is normal to have occasional general discomfort, headaches, pains, and muscle strains in daily life, even without cancer. But, even after a cancer diagnosis, not every pain is related to or caused by cancer. Cancer pain may depend on the type of cancer, the stage (extent) of the disease, and an individual's threshold (tolerance) for pain.

What should I do if I am in pain?

A test cannot be performed to measure different levels of pain. So that any pain you may be experiencing can be reduced or eliminated, you will need to talk to your physician about the pain and provide specific details about your level of discomfort.

According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), the answers you give to the following questions can help your physician locate the cause of the pain and develop a plan to provide you with as much relief as possible.

The following questions may be asked of you to more accurately evaluate your condition:

NCI suggests that you make some notes so that when your physician asks specific questions about your pain you will be able to provide accurate answers. Write down the details of any discomfort you might have been having so you will not forget to report them. Consider keeping a diary of your pain, or ask a friend of family member to help track your symptoms. The types of information that you may want to note in your diary include:

Your physician may need to refer to your diary when making a plan to relieve your pain and to make you more comfortable, therefore, be sure to bring it with you to your physician visits.

How can I describe my pain?

When your physician or nurse asks about your pain you will need to communicate how your pain feels in as specific terms as possible. When you are asked how it feels, NCI suggests using the following terminology:

What causes pain with cancer?

Cancer pain that lasts several days or longer may result from one or more of the following and should be evaluated right away:

Treatment for pain:

Specific treatment for pain will be determined by your physician based on the following:

Methods for reducing pain are classified as either pharmacological or non-pharmacological.

What is pharmacological pain management?

Pharmacological pain management for cancer refers to the use of pharmaceutical medications. Oncology clinics usually offer several pain management options for any procedure that may be painful, such as a bone marrow aspiration or lumbar puncture. There are many types of medications and several methods used for administration, from very temporary (10 minute) mild sedation, to full general anesthesia in the operating room.

Pain medication may be given in one or more of the following methods:

Examples of pharmacological pain relief include the following:

Some people can build up a tolerance to sedatives, muscle relaxers, and pain relievers. Over time, doses or types of medication used for pain relief may need to be increased or changed. Fear of addiction to narcotics is common, although, in most cases, it is rarely a problem. It is important to understand that the ultimate goal is comfort, which means taking appropriate measures to alleviate your pain.

Questions to ask about your pain medication:

Each time a pain medication is prescribed by your physician, consider seeking answers to the following questions:

What if I need to change my pain medicine?

If you are dissatisfied with the medication you have been prescribed, consult your physician or cancer treatment team. There may be other ways to alleviate the pain, including switching to a different pain medication. Changes may also be recommended regarding the way you are taking the medication.

Be sure to talk with your physician when you are uncomfortable, as a different pain medicine, different dose, or different combination of pain medications may be required if:

What is non-pharmacological pain management?

Non-pharmacological pain management is the management of pain without medications. This method utilizes ways to alter thoughts and focus concentration to better manage and reduce pain. Methods of non-pharmacological pain include:

education and psychological conditioning
Not knowing what to expect with cancer treatment is very stressful. However, if you are prepared and can anticipate what will happen, your stress level will be much lower. To decrease your anxiety about cancer treatment, consider the following:

  • Ask for an explanation of each step of a procedure in detail, utilizing simple pictures or diagrams when available.
  • Meet with the person who will be performing the procedure and write down answers to questions.
  • Tour the room where the procedure will take place.
  • Ask what you can expect as an outcome of the treatment.

With hypnosis, a psychologist or physician guides you into an altered state of consciousness. This helps you to focus or narrow your attention to reduce discomfort. Methods for hypnosis include:

  • imagery
    Guiding you through imaginary mental images of sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and feelings can help shift attention away from the pain.
  • distraction
    Distraction is usually used to help children, especially babies. Using colorful, moving objects or singing songs, telling stories, or looking at books or videos can distract preschoolers. Older children and adults find watching TV or listening to music helpful. Use distraction appropriately, and not in place of an explanation of what to expect.
  • relaxation/guided imagery
    Guiding you through relaxation exercises such as deep breathing and stretching can often reduce discomfort

Other non-pharmacological pain management may utilize alternative therapies such as comfort therapy, physical and occupational therapy, psychosocial therapy/counseling, and neurostimulation to better manage and reduce pain. Examples of these non-pharmacological pain management techniques include the following:

comfort therapy
Comfort therapy may involve the following:

  • companionship
  • exercise
  • heat/cold application
  • lotions/massage therapy
  • meditation
  • music, art, or drama therapy
  • pastoral counseling
  • positioning

physical and occupational therapy
Physical and occupational therapy may involve the following:

  • aquatherapy
  • tone and strengthening
  • desensitization

psychosocial therapy/counseling
Psychosocial therapy/counseling may involve the following:

  • individual counseling
  • family counseling
  • group counselingp

Neurostimulation may involve the following:

  • transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS)
  • acupuncture
  • acupressure

Stanford Medicine Resources:

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