Pain (PDQ®)NCI PDQ Summaries for Patients
Management with Drugs
Physical, Integrative, Behavioral, and Psychosocial Interventions
Radiation Therapy to Relieve Pain
Invasive Interventions to Relieve Pain
Treating Older Patients
Changes to This Summary (12/30/2011)
Questions or Comments About This Summary
Get More Information From NCI
This patient summary on pain is adapted from the summary written for health professionals by cancer experts. This and other credible information about cancer treatment, screening, prevention, supportive care, and ongoing clinical trials is available from the National Cancer Institute. Pain associated with cancer can be controlled in most patients but is frequently undertreated. This brief summary describes the management of cancer pain with the use of medication, physical methods, and psychological intervention.
This summary is about pain in adults with cancer.
Cancer pain can be managed effectively in most patients with cancer or with a history of cancer. Although cancer pain cannot always be relieved completely, therapy can lessen pain in most patients. Pain management improves the patient's quality of life throughout all stages of the disease.
Flexibility is important in managing cancer pain. As patients vary in diagnosis, stage of disease, responses to pain and treatments, and personal likes and dislikes, management of cancer pain must be individualized. Patients, their families, and their health care providers must work together closely to manage a patient's pain effectively.
To treat pain, it must be measured. The patient and the doctor should measure pain levels at regular intervals after starting cancer treatment. Checks should be done at each clinic visit, at each new report of pain, and after starting any type of treatment for pain. The cause of the pain must be identified and treated promptly.Patient Self-Report
To help the health care provider determine the type and extent of the pain, cancer patients can describe the location and intensity of their pain, any aggravating or relieving factors, and their goals for pain control. The family/caregiver may be asked to report for a patient who has a communication problem involving speech, language, or a thinking impairment. The health care provider should help the patient describe the following:
- Pain: The patient describes the pain, when it started, how long it lasts, and whether it is worse during certain times of the day or night.
- Location: The patient shows exactly where the pain is on his or her body or on a drawing of a body and where the pain goes if it travels.
- Pattern: The patient describes if there have been changes in where the pain is, when the pain occurs, and how long it lasts, or if there is new pain.
- Intensity or severity: The patient keeps a diary of the degree or severity of pain.
- Aggravating and relieving factors: The patient identifies factors that increase or decrease the pain. The patient also identifies symptoms that are most troublesome, since they are not always the most serious or severe.
- Personal response to pain: Feelings of fear, confusion, or hopelessness about cancer, its prognosis, and the causes of pain can affect how a patient responds to and describes the pain. For example, a patient who thinks pain is caused by cancer spreading may report more severe pain or more disability from the pain.
- Behavioral response to pain: The health care provider and/or caregivers note behaviors that may suggest pain in patients who have communication problems.
- Goals for pain control: With the health care provider, the patient decides how much pain he or she can tolerate and how much improvement he or she may achieve. The patient uses a daily pain diary to increase awareness of pain, gain a sense of control of the pain, and receive guidance from health care providers on ways to manage the pain.
The assessment will include an exam of the body to check general signs of health or anything that seems unusual, and to look for signs that the cancer has grown or spread. A history of the patient’s health habits and past illnesses and treatments will also be taken. A neurological exam will be done. This is a series of questions and tests to check the brain, spinal cord, and nerve function. The exam checks the patient's mental status, ability to move and walk normally, and how well the muscles, senses, and reflexes work. The patient's psychological and spiritual well-being are evaluated. A personal and family history of substance abuse is taken. All of this information is taken as a whole to diagnose and treat the pain effectively.Assessment of the Outcomes of Pain Management
The results of pain management should be measured by monitoring for a decrease in the severity of pain and improvement in thinking ability, emotional well-being, and social functioning. The results of taking pain medication should also be monitored. Drug addiction is rare in cancer patients. Developing a higher tolerance for a drug and becoming physically dependent on the drug for pain relief does not mean that the patient is addicted. Patients should take pain medication as prescribed by the doctor. Patients who have a history of drug abuse may tolerate higher doses of medication to control pain.
Management with DrugsBasic Principles of Cancer Pain Management
The World Health Organization developed a 3-step approach for pain management based on the severity of the pain:
- For mild to moderate pain, the doctor may prescribe a Step 1 pain medication such as aspirin, acetaminophen, or a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID). Patients should be monitored for side effects, especially those caused by NSAIDs, such as kidney, heart and blood vessel, or stomach and intestinal problems.
- When pain lasts or increases, the doctor may change the prescription to a Step 2 or Step 3 pain medication. Most patients with cancer-related pain will need a Step 2 or Step 3 medication. The doctor may skip Step 1 medications if the patient initially has moderate to severe pain.
- At each step, the doctor may prescribe additional drugs or treatments (for example, radiation therapy).
- The patient should take doses regularly, "by mouth, by the clock" (at scheduled times), to maintain a constant level of the drug in the body; this will help prevent recurrence of pain. If the patient is unable to swallow, the drugs are given by other routes (for example, by infusion or injection).
- The doctor may prescribe additional doses of drug that can be taken as needed for pain that occurs between scheduled doses of drug.
- The doctor will adjust the pain medication regimen for each patient's individual circumstances and physical condition.
NSAIDs are effective for relief of mild pain. They may be given with opioids for the relief of moderate to severe pain. Acetaminophen also relieves pain, although it does not have the anti-inflammatory effect that aspirin and NSAIDs do. Patients, especially older patients, who are taking acetaminophen or NSAIDs should be closely monitored for side effects. Aspirin should not be given to children to treat pain.Opioids
Opioids are very effective for the relief of moderate to severe pain. Many patients with cancer pain, however, become tolerant to opioids during long-term therapy. Therefore, increasing doses may be needed to continue to relieve pain. A patient's tolerance of an opioid or physical dependence on it is not the same as addiction (psychological dependence). Mistaken concerns about addiction can result in undertreating pain.Types of Opioids
There are several types of opioids. Morphine is the most commonly used opioid in cancer pain management. Other commonly used opioids include hydromorphone, oxycodone, oxymorphone, methadone, fentanyl, meperidine (Demerol), tapentadol, and tramadol. The availability of several different opioids allows the doctor flexibility in prescribing a medication regimen that will meet individual patient needs.Guidelines for Giving Opioids
Most patients with cancer pain will need to receive pain medication on a fixed schedule to manage the pain and prevent it from getting worse. The doctor will prescribe a dose of the opioid medication that can be taken as needed along with the regular fixed-schedule opioid to control pain that occurs between the scheduled doses. The amount of time between doses depends on which opioid the doctor prescribes. The correct dose is the amount of opioid that controls pain with the fewest side effects. The goal is to achieve a good balance between pain relief and side effects by gradually adjusting the dose. If opioid tolerance does occur, it can be overcome by increasing the dose or changing to another opioid, especially if higher doses are needed.
Occasionally, doses may need to be decreased or stopped. This may occur when patients become pain free because of cancer treatments such as nerve blocks or radiation therapy. The doctor may also decrease the dose when the patient experiences opioid-related sedation along with good pain control, or when kidney failure develops or worsens.
Medications for pain may be given in several ways. When the patient has a working stomach and intestines, the preferred method is by mouth, since medications given orally are convenient and usually inexpensive. When patients cannot take medications by mouth, other less invasive methods may be used, such as rectally, through medication patches placed on the skin, or in the form of a nasal spray. Intravenous methods are used only when simpler, less demanding, and less costly methods are inappropriate, ineffective, or unacceptable to the patient. Patient-controlled analgesia (PCA) pumps may be used to determine the opioid dose when starting opioid therapy. Once the pain is controlled, the doctor may prescribe regular opioid doses based on the amount the patient required when using the PCA pump. Intraspinal administration of opioids combined with a local anesthetic may be helpful for some patients who have uncontrollable pain.Side Effects of Opioids
Patients should be watched closely for side effects of opioids. The most common side effects of opioids include nausea, sleepiness, and constipation. The doctor should discuss the side effects with patients before starting opioid treatment. Sleepiness and nausea are usually experienced when opioid treatment is started and tend to improve within a few days. Other side effects of opioid treatment include vomiting, difficulty in thinking clearly, problems with breathing, gradual overdose, and problems with sexual function. Chronic nausea and vomiting in patients receiving long-term opioid treatment may be caused by constipation.
Opioids slow down the muscle contractions and movement in the stomach and intestines resulting in hard stools. The key to effective prevention of constipation is to be sure the patient receives plenty of fluids to keep the stool soft. Unless there are problems such as a blocked bowel or diarrhea, patients will usually be given a regimen to follow to prevent constipation and information on how to manage bowel health while taking opioids.
Patients should talk to their doctor about side effects that become too bothersome or severe. Because there are differences between individual patients in the degree to which opioids may cause side effects, severe or continuing problems should be reported to the doctor. The doctor may decrease the dose of the opioid, switch to a different opioid, or switch the way the opioid is given (for example intravenous or injection rather than by mouth) to attempt to decrease the side effects. (Refer to the PDQ summaries on Gastrointestinal Complications, Nausea and Vomiting, Nutrition in Cancer Care, and Sexuality and Reproductive Issues for more information about coping with these side effects.)Drugs Used with Pain Medications
Other drugs may be given at the same time as the pain medication. This is done to increase the effectiveness of the pain medication, treat symptoms, and relieve specific types of pain. These drugs include antidepressants, anticonvulsants, local anesthetics, corticosteroids, bisphosphonates, and stimulants. A monoclonal antibody called denosumab is used to prevent broken bones and other bone problems caused by solid tumors that have metastasized (spread) to bone. There are great differences in how patients respond to these drugs. Side effects are common and should be reported to the doctor.
The use of bisphosphonates may cause severe and sometimes disabling pain in the bones, joints, and/or muscles. This pain may develop after these drugs are used for days, months, or years, as compared with the fever, chills, and discomfort that may occur when intravenous bisphosphonates are first given. If severe muscle or bone pain develops, bisphosphonate therapy may need to be stopped.
The use of bisphosphonates is also linked to the risk of bisphosphonate-associated osteonecrosis (BON). See the PDQ summary on Oral Complications of Chemotherapy and Head/Neck Radiation for more information on BON.
Physical, Integrative, Behavioral, and Psychosocial Interventions
Noninvasive physical, integrative, thinking and behavioral, and psychological methods can be used along with drugs and other treatments to manage pain during all phases of cancer treatment. These interventions may help with pain control both directly and indirectly, by making patients feel they have more control over events. The effectiveness of the pain interventions depends on the patient's participation in treatment and his or her ability to tell the health care provider which methods work best to relieve pain.Physical Interventions
Weakness, muscle wasting, and muscle/bone pain may be treated with heat (a hot pack or heating pad); cold (flexible ice packs); exercise (to strengthen weak muscles, loosen stiff joints, help restore coordination and balance, and strengthen the heart); changing the position of the patient; restricting the movement of painful areas or broken bones; or controlled low-voltage electrical stimulation.Integrative Interventions
Massage therapy has been studied as part of supportive care in managing cancer-related pain. Massage may help improve relaxation and benefit mood. Preclinical and clinical trials show that massage therapy may:
- Stimulate the release of endorphins (substances that relieve pain and give a feeling of well-being).
- Increase the flow of blood and lymphatic fluid.
- Strengthen the effects of pain medications.
- Decrease inflammation and edema.
- Lower pain caused by muscle spasms and tension.
Physical methods to help relieve pain have direct effects on tissues of the body and should be used with caution in patients with cancer. Studies suggest that massage therapy may be safe in patients with cancer with the following precautions:
- Avoid massaging any open wounds, bruises, or areas with skin breakdown.
- Avoid massaging directly over the tumor site.
- Avoid massaging areas with deep vein thrombosis (blood clot in a vein). Symptoms may include pain, swelling, warmth, and redness in the affected area.
- Avoid massaging soft tissue when the skin is sensitive following radiation therapy.
(For more information on massage, see Exercise 2 in the following section.)
Acupuncture is an integrative intervention that applies needles, heat, pressure, and other treatments to one or more places on the skin called acupuncture points. Acupuncture may be used to manage pain, including cancer-related pain. See the PDQ summary on Acupuncture for more information.Thinking, Behavioral, and Psychosocial Interventions
Thinking, behavioral, and psychosocial interventions are also important in treating pain. These interventions help give patients a sense of control and help them develop coping skills to deal with the disease and its symptoms. Beginning these interventions early in the course of the disease is useful so that patients can learn and practice the skills while they have enough strength and energy. Several methods should be tried, and one or more should be used regularly.
- Relaxation and imagery: Simple relaxation techniques may be used for episodes of brief pain (for example, during cancer treatment procedures). Brief, simple techniques are suitable for periods when the patient's ability to concentrate is limited by severe pain, high anxiety, or fatigue. (See Relaxation exercises below.)
- Hypnosis: Hypnotic techniques may be used to encourage relaxation and may be combined with other thinking/behavior methods. Hypnosis is effective in relieving pain in people who are able to concentrate and use imagery and who are willing to practice the technique.
- Redirecting thinking: Focusing attention on triggers other than pain or negative emotions that come with pain may involve distractions that are internal (for example, counting, praying, or saying things like "I can cope") or external (for example, music, television, talking, listening to someone read, or looking at something specific). Patients can also learn to monitor and evaluate negative thoughts and replace them with more positive thoughts and images.
- Patient education: Health care providers can give patients and their families information and instructions about pain and pain management and assure them that most pain can be controlled effectively. Health care providers should also discuss the major barriers that interfere with effective pain management.
- Psychological support: Short-term psychological therapy helps some patients. Patients who develop clinical depression or adjustment disorder may see a psychiatrist for diagnosis.
- Support groups and religious counseling: Support groups help many patients. Religious counseling may also help by providing spiritual care and social support.
The following relaxation exercises may be helpful in relieving pain.Exercise 1. Slow rhythmic breathing for relaxation *
- Exercise 2. Simple touch, massage, or warmth for relaxation *
- Touch and massage are traditional methods of helping others relax. Some
- Brief touch or massage, such as hand holding or briefly touching or rubbing a person's shoulders.
- Soaking feet in a basin of warm water or wrapping the feet in a warm, wet towel.
- Massage (3 to 10 minutes) of the whole body or just the back, feet, or hands. If the patient is modest or cannot move or turn easily in bed, consider massage of the hands and feet.
- Use a warm lubricant. A small bowl of hand lotion may be warmed in the microwave oven or a bottle of lotion may be warmed in a sink of hot water for about 10 minutes.
- Massage for relaxation is usually done with smooth, long, slow strokes. Try several degrees of pressure along with different types of massage, such as kneading and stroking, to determine which is preferred.
Especially for the elderly person, a back rub that effectively produces relaxation may consist of no more than 3 minutes of slow, rhythmic stroking (about 60 strokes per minute) on both sides of the spine, from the crown of the head to the lower back. Continuous hand contact is maintained by starting one hand down the back as the other hand stops at the lower back and is raised. Set aside a regular time for the massage. This gives the patient something pleasant to anticipate.
- Exercise 3. Peaceful past experiences *
- Something may have happened to you a while ago that brought you peace or
comfort. You may be able to draw on that experience to bring you peace or
comfort now. Think about these questions:
- Can you remember any situation, even when you were a child, when you felt calm, peaceful, secure, hopeful, or comfortable?
- Have you ever daydreamed about something peaceful? What were you thinking?
- Do you get a dreamy feeling when you listen to music? Do you have any favorite music?
- Do you have any favorite poetry that you find uplifting or reassuring?
- Have you ever been active religiously? Do you have favorite readings, hymns, or prayers? Even if you haven't heard or thought of them for many years, childhood religious experiences may still be very soothing.
Additional points: Some of the things that may comfort you, such as your favorite music or a prayer, can probably be recorded for you. Then you can listen to the tape whenever you wish. Or, if your memory is strong, you may simply close your eyes and recall the events or words.Exercise 4. Active listening to recorded music *
- A cassette player or tape recorder. (Small, battery-operated ones are more convenient.)
- Earphones or a headset. (Helps focus the attention better than a speaker a few feet away, and avoids disturbing others.)
- A cassette of music you like. (Most people prefer fast, lively music, but some select relaxing music. Other options are comedy routines, sporting events, old radio shows, or stories.)
Additional points: Many patients have found this technique to be helpful. It tends to be very popular, probably because the equipment is usually readily available and is a part of daily life. Other advantages are that it is easy to learn and not physically or mentally demanding. If you are very tired, you may simply listen to the music and omit marking time or focusing on a spot.
*Adapted and reprinted with permission from McCaffery M, Beebe A: Pain: Clinical Manual for Nursing Practice. St. Louis, Mo: CV Mosby: 1989.
Radiation Therapy to Relieve Pain
Radiation therapy may be used for pain relief rather than as treatment for primary cancer in patients with cancer that has spread to the bone. Radiation may be given as local therapy directly to the tumor or to larger areas of the body. Local or whole-body radiation therapy may make pain medication and other noninvasive therapies work better by directly affecting the cause of the pain (for example, by shrinking tumor size). Radiation therapy may help patients with bone pain from cancer to move more freely with less pain.
Pain flare is an increase in pain after radiation therapy that develops before pain is relieved. Pain flare is being studied in patients receiving radiation therapy for cancer that has spread to the bone.External Beam Radiation Therapy
External-beam radiation therapy (EBRT) is a type of radiation therapy that uses a machine to aim high-energy x-rays at the cancer from outside the body. EBRT relieves pain from cancer that has spread to the bone in many patients. Radiation therapy may be given in a single dose or divided into several smaller doses given over a period of time. Single dose schedules and multiple dose schedules of EBRT are both effective for pain relief but single dose therapy is more likely to need to be repeated. Single dose EBRT for pain relief has not been found to cause more long-term harm than multiple dose EBRT. The decision whether to have single or multiple dose EBRT may also depend on how convenient the treatments are and how much they cost.Stereotactic Body Radiation Therapy
Stereotactic body radiation therapy (SBRT) is a type of external radiation therapy that uses special equipment to position a patient and precisely deliver radiation to tumors in the body (except the brain). This type of radiation therapy helps spare normal tissue. SBRT may be used to treat cancer that has spread to the bone, especially spinal tumors. SBRT may also be used to treat areas that have already received radiation.Bisphosphonates with Radiation Therapy
The use of radiation therapy given together with bisphosphonates is being studied in patients with cancer that has spread to the bone. More studies are needed to find out if giving bisphosphonates with radiation therapy relieves pain better than radiation therapy alone.Radiopharmaceuticals
Radiopharmaceuticals are drugs that contain a radioactive substance that may be used to diagnose or treat disease, including cancer. Radiopharmaceuticals may also be used to relieve pain from cancer that has spread to the bone. A single dose of a radioactive agent injected into a vein may relieve pain when cancer has spread to several areas of bone and/or when there are too many areas to treat with EBRT. Small areas of cancer may respond to radiopharmaceuticals while large areas usually do not. A second treatment may be helpful in patients whose pain does not respond to a single treatment. One study showed that more than 2 doses of a radioactive substance called samarium 153 may be safe and effective in patients who responded to their first dose. Radiopharmaceuticals have not been shown to prevent the need for EBRT in relieving pain from cancer that has spread to the bone.Radiofrequency Ablation
Radiofrequency ablation uses a needle electrode to heat tumors and destroy them. An imaging method is used to insert the electrode through the skin and guide the needle to the right location. This procedure may relieve pain in patients who have cancer that has spread to the bone. More study is needed to learn about possible risks and benefits.
Invasive Interventions to Relieve Pain
Less invasive methods should be used for relieving pain before trying invasive treatment. Some patients, however, may need invasive therapy.Nerve Blocks
A nerve block is the injection of either a local anesthetic or a drug that inactivates nerves to control otherwise uncontrollable pain. Nerve blocks can be used to determine the source of pain, to treat painful conditions that respond to nerve blocks, to predict how the pain will respond to long-term treatments, and to prevent pain following procedures.Neurologic Interventions
Many diagnostic and treatment procedures are painful. Pain related to procedures may be treated before it occurs. Local anesthetics and short-acting opioids can be used to manage procedure-related pain, if enough time is allowed for the drug to work. Anti-anxiety drugs and sedatives may be used to reduce anxiety or to sedate the patient. Treatments such as imagery or relaxation are useful in managing procedure-related pain and anxiety.
Patients usually tolerate procedures better when they know what to expect. Having a relative or friend stay with the patient during the procedure may help reduce anxiety.
Patients and family members should receive written instructions for managing the pain at home. They should receive information regarding whom to contact for questions related to pain management.
Treating Older Patients
Older patients are at risk for under-treatment of pain because their sensitivity to pain may be underestimated, they may be expected to tolerate pain well, and misconceptions may exist about their ability to benefit from opioids. Issues in assessing and treating cancer pain in older patients include the following:
- Multiple chronic diseases and sources of pain: Age and complicated medication regimens put older patients at increased risk for interactions between drugs and between drugs and the chronic diseases.
- Visual, hearing, movement, and thinking impairments may require simpler tests and more frequent monitoring to determine the extent of pain in the older patient.
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) side effects, such as stomach and kidney toxicity, thinking problems, constipation, and headaches, are more likely to occur in older patients.
- Opioid effectiveness: Older patients may be more sensitive to the pain-relieving and central nervous system effects of opioids resulting in longer periods of pain relief.
- Patient-controlled analgesia must be used cautiously in older patients, since drugs are slower to leave the body and older patients are more sensitive to the side effects.
- Other methods of administration, such as rectal administration, may not be useful in older patients since they may be physically unable to insert the medication.
- Pain control after surgery requires frequent direct contact with health care providers to monitor pain management.
- Reassessment of pain management and required changes should be made whenever the older patient moves (for example, from hospital to home or nursing home).
Changes to This Summary (12/30/2011)
Changes were made to this summary to match those made to the health professional version.
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