Oncologic patient practicing meditation for pain relief

Managing Pain in Cancer Patients

Let’s focus on oncological pain relief.


Pain is often a constant companion for cancer patients. It can be a result of the disease itself, the treatment, or a combination of both. Managing this pain effectively is crucial to improving a patient’s quality of life.


This article aims to provide a comprehensive guide to understanding and managing cancer-related pain.


Oncological female patient sitting on a couch

Understanding the pain in cancer patients

Understanding the nature and dynamics of pain in cancer patients is critical for effective management and treatment. Pain can manifest in various forms and intensities, often depending on the type of cancer, its stage, and its location within the body.

A tumor growing in proximity to bones, nerves, or organs can lead to localized or radiating pain. For instance, a lung cancer tumor pressing against the chest wall may cause persistent discomfort, while a brain tumor could induce headaches or even seizures.

Sometimes, the pain isn’t directly caused by the cancer itself but stems from diagnostic procedures or treatment methods. Biopsies, which involve removing a small tissue sample for testing, can cause temporary pain at the extraction site.

Bone marrow tests, which involve drawing marrow from inside the bone, can also be particularly painful. These diagnostic procedures are essential for accurate staging and treatment planning, but they do contribute to the patient’s overall experience of pain.

Treatment modalities like chemotherapy and radiation can result in their own set of painful symptoms. Chemotherapy often leads to nausea, vomiting, and mouth sores, which can exacerbate the patient’s overall discomfort.

Radiation may cause localized skin irritation or burns, adding another layer of pain to manage. Surgery for tumor removal can also result in post-operative pain, necessitating careful pain management strategies.

Oncological pain relief is a specialized field focused on alleviating the multifaceted pain experienced by cancer patients. It employs a multi-modal approach, combining pharmacological treatments like analgesics and anti-inflammatory medications with non-pharmacological methods such as acupuncture, physical therapy, and psychological support.

The goal is not just to manage immediate pain but also to improve the patient’s overall quality of life. The journey through cancer is undoubtedly challenging, with pain being a frequent and unwelcome companion.

However, advancements in oncological pain relief offer hope for better management and mitigation of this distressing symptom, allowing patients to focus more on recovery and less on suffering.

Different ways cancer causes pain

Cancer can manifest pain through various avenues, affecting not just the physical body but also the emotional well-being of the patient. One of the primary sources of cancer-related pain is tumor growth.

As tumors expand, they can exert pressure on nearby structures like nerves, bones, or organs. For instance, a spinal tumor may press against the spinal cord or nerves branching off it, causing significant back pain. This sort of mechanical pressure can make even simple tasks agonizing.

Another way cancer causes pain is through diagnostic procedures. Medical tests such as biopsies, where a small tissue sample is extracted for microscopic examination, can be uncomfortable or painful. Similarly, bone marrow tests that involve inserting a needle into the bone to extract marrow can also cause acute pain during and after the procedure.

These diagnostic tests are crucial for accurate disease staging and treatment planning, but they can be sources of temporary but intense pain. Cancer treatments themselves can also be painful. Surgery, a common treatment for certain types of cancer, can result in post-operative pain at the incision site, along with potential complications that may extend discomfort.

Chemotherapy, while effective at killing cancer cells, can cause side effects like mouth sores and nerve damage, which are painful. Radiation therapy may lead to skin burns, mucositis (inflammation of the lining of the digestive tract), or other localized discomforts.

Even targeted therapies and immunotherapies, which are generally considered less toxic than chemotherapy, can have side effects like skin reactions that cause pain.

Managing this multidimensional pain often requires a comprehensive approach, including medication, physical therapy, and sometimes psychological support, aimed at improving the patient’s overall quality of life.

Types and severity of cancer pain

Cancer pain is a complex symptom experienced by many cancer patients at various stages of their disease and treatment. The experience of pain can differ dramatically from person to person, both in type and severity.


  • Sharp: This kind of pain can be likened to a stabbing sensation and is often sudden and intense. Sharp pain may be triggered by movement, touch, or even at random, making it unpredictable and difficult to manage.
  • Tingling: Often described as a “pins-and-needles” sensation, this may be due to nerve damage or pressure from a tumor. While not always painful, the sensation can be distressing and uncomfortable.
  • Aching: This is a more diffuse, lingering type of pain often associated with inflammation or pressure. It’s duller than sharp pain but can be equally debilitating due to its continuous nature.


Cancer pain can range from mild, which may be a minor nuisance, to severe, which can be excruciating and impede basic daily functions. The severity often correlates with the stage of cancer and the degree of tissue or nerve involvement.

However, high levels of pain do not necessarily indicate advanced disease, as pain is a subjective experience influenced by numerous factors including emotional and psychological states.


The duration of cancer pain can also vary. Acute pain may be experienced post-surgery or after specific treatments, often subsiding as healing occurs. Chronic pain, however, may persist for months or even years, significantly affecting quality of life.

Long-lasting pain often requires more complex and multidisciplinary approaches to management, such as medication, physical therapy, and psychological support.

Understanding the type, severity, and duration of cancer pain is crucial for effective pain management and improving the patient’s quality of life.

The importance of pain management in cancer treatment

The importance of pain management in cancer treatment goes beyond mere alleviation of discomfort; it’s a holistic approach that significantly impacts a patient’s quality of life.

Uncontrolled pain can have detrimental effects both physically and emotionally, potentially hindering the efficacy of treatment and diminishing the overall patient experience.

Effective pain management can substantially improve sleep quality, which is often compromised in cancer patients due to discomfort or anxiety. Adequate sleep is not only essential for physical well-being but is also crucial for the immune system and cellular repair mechanisms, thereby indirectly supporting cancer treatment.

Furthermore, managing pain effectively can significantly reduce stress and depression, which are commonly observed in cancer patients. High stress levels can have a deleterious effect on the immune system and could even accelerate tumor growth.

Additionally, depression can sap the patient’s will to continue treatment, compromising adherence to medication regimens and appointments, which are critical for successful cancer care.

Physical activity is another key area that benefits from good pain management. Maintaining some level of activity can help to prevent muscle atrophy, improve cardiovascular health, and boost mood through the release of endorphins.

Pain control also facilitates better nutritional intake by making eating a more comfortable experience, thereby helping to prevent weight loss and malnutrition, which are common issues in cancer treatment.

Effective pain management serves as a multipronged strategy in cancer care. It not only improves patient comfort but also positively impacts sleep, emotional well-being, physical activity, and nutrition—ultimately enhancing the overall effectiveness of cancer treatment.
Senior asian man walking with help from a therapist

Why is pain management important?

  • Enhancing Quality of Life: Effective pain management can make daily activities more comfortable and improve the overall quality of life.

  • Improving Sleep: Pain can disrupt sleep, leading to fatigue and affecting overall well-being. Managing pain effectively can help improve sleep quality.

  • Reducing Stress and Depression: Chronic pain can lead to stress and depression. Managing pain effectively can help reduce these negative emotional effects.

  • Maintaining Physical Activity: Pain can limit physical activity, leading to weakness and reduced mobility. Effective pain management can help maintain physical activity levels.

Addressing addiction concerns

Opioids are often prescribed for oncological pain relief, but there is a concern about the potential for addiction. It is important to understand the difference between tolerance and addiction.

Tolerance is when the body gets used to a certain dose of medication and may require a higher dose for the same effect. Addiction is a chronic disease characterized by craving, lack of control over the drug, and continued use despite harm.

It is essential to follow the doctor’s prescription and discuss any concerns with the healthcare provider. Regular monitoring and adjustment of the medication can help manage pain effectively while minimizing the risk of addiction.

Therapist hands treating back pain with massage

Comprehensive pain management therapies for cancer patients

Pain management in cancer patients requires a comprehensive approach that may include pharmaceutical and non-pharmaceutical therapies, as well as complementary therapies.

Pharmaceutical Approaches

  • Powerful Painkillers: Morphine is often considered the most powerful painkiller for cancer patients. It is a strong opioid that is effective for severe pain. However, it is essential to follow the doctor’s prescription and monitor for any side effects.

  • First Line Opioid: The first line opioid for cancer pain is usually a weaker opioid like codeine or tramadol. These are often prescribed in combination with non-opioid painkillers like acetaminophen or ibuprofen.

  • Strong Opioid: For more severe pain, a stronger opioid like morphine, oxycodone, or fentanyl may be prescribed. These medications are potent and should be taken with caution.

  • Tramadol vs. Morphine: Tramadol is a weaker opioid than morphine and may have fewer side effects.

However, it may not be as effective for severe pain. The healthcare provider will assess the individual patient’s needs and prescribe the most appropriate medication.

Non-Pharmaceutical Approaches

  • Nerve Blocks and Ablations: These are procedures where a local anesthetic, alcohol, or phenol is injected around a nerve to block or destroy the nerve and eliminate the pain signal. This can be effective for stubborn pain from head and neck cancers, abdominal cancers, thoracic cancers, and pelvic cancers.

  • Neuro-modulation: This involves the placement of a tiny device with electrodes directly around either the nerves or spinal cord to block the pain signals originating at the cancer site. This can be particularly useful for painful neuropathies associated with radiation, surgery, or chemotherapy.

  • Patient-Controlled Intrathecal Analgesia: This involves inserting a catheter directly into the spinal canal and connecting it to a pump reservoir. The patient can use the pump to administer a pre-programmed dose of pain medication when they feel pain. This can provide better pain relief with fewer side effects.

  • TENS (Transcutaneous Electric Nerve Stimulation): This involves using electrical currents to stimulate nerves and reduce pain. It is a non-invasive treatment that can be helpful for some patients.

Complementary Therapies

  • Home Remedies: Some home remedies can provide Oncological Pain Relief. For example, hot or cold packs can help reduce inflammation and provide relief from pain. Gentle exercises and stretches can also be helpful. However, it is essential to consult a healthcare provider before starting any new exercise or home remedy.

  • Acupuncture: This involves inserting thin needles into specific points on the body to reduce pain. It can be a safe and effective treatment option for certain pain symptoms of cancer and can also help manage some side effects of treatment, including chemotherapy, surgery, radiation therapy, and hormone therapy.

  • Massage: Massage can help relax muscles and reduce tension, which can help reduce pain. It is important to find a trained massage therapist who is experienced in working with cancer patients.

  • Cognitive Behavioral Health: This involves working with a behavioral health specialist to recognize negative thought and behavior patterns related to pain and discomfort and improve coping strategies.

  • Exercise: Staying active is vitally important for people with chronic pain. An appropriate exercise program designed to build strength, restore range of motion, and improve flexibility will be recommended.

  • Rehabilitation Therapy: This aims to help patients set goals, manage symptoms, and get back into the activities that keep them involved in their lives.

In conclusion

Managing pain in cancer patients is a critical aspect of treatment and requires a comprehensive approach that includes pharmaceutical, non-pharmaceutical, and complementary therapies.

Oncological pain relief is not just about managing physical symptoms but improving the overall quality of life. It is important to talk to healthcare providers for a tailored approach to pain management that considers the individual patient’s needs and preferences.

If you or a loved one are dealing with cancer-related pain, consult a healthcare provider at Long Island Neuroscience Specialists for an individualized Oncological Pain Relief plan tailored to meet your specific needs.