Cancer patients often experience painful symptoms caused by the disease itself or its treatment. Pain can be a challenging experience for people with cancer and can affect their physical, emotional, social, and spiritual well-being. As a result, effective pain management is a critical part of cancer care.
This article provides valuable insights on how to manage cancer pain, including different types of pain, their diagnosis, treatments, and management options. Read on to discover helpful strategies and tips that can help you manage cancer pain effectively.
Pain Management for Cancer Patients: An Overview
Pain management for cancer patients is an essential aspect of cancer care. Effective pain management can significantly improve a patient’s quality of life by reducing pain levels, improving overall function and well-being, and facilitating other medical treatments.
Pain management involves identifying the source and cause of the pain and then providing suitable treatments such as pain medication, physical therapy, and counseling. Pain management also includes monitoring and adjusting pain medications to ensure that the patient receives the optimal dose to manage their pain.
The Different Types of Pain
Before discussing how to manage cancer pain, it is important to understand the different types of pain that cancer patients may experience. Some of the common types of pain experienced by cancer patients include:
- Acute Pain: Acute pain is sharp or intense and often short-lived. It typically lasts for a few days or weeks and is caused by tissue damage, inflammation, or trauma.
- Chronic Pain: Chronic pain lasts for an extended period, often more than six months. It is characterized by pain that may be dull, aching, or burning and can be caused by cancer treatments, nerve damage, or tissue scarring.
- Breakthrough Pain: Breakthrough pain is a flare-up of pain that breaks through the patient’s regular pain medication. It can occur with or without regular pain and is often intense and sudden.
Diagnosing Cancer Pain
Effective pain management starts with an accurate diagnosis. An oncologist or pain specialist can diagnose cancer pain by reviewing the patient’s medical history and conducting a physical exam. They may also perform diagnostic tests such as:
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
- Computed tomography (CT) scans
- Bone scans
Treating Cancer Pain
Treating cancer pain often involves a combination of approaches. Treatment options can include medication, radiation therapy, nerve blocks, and surgery. Your oncologist or pain specialist will work with you to develop an individualized treatment plan based on your unique needs.
Medications for Cancer Pain
Pain medications are often used to manage cancer pain. They may be prescribed alone or in combination with other treatments. Some of the common pain medications used to manage cancer pain include:
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
Radiation therapy involves using high-energy radiation to shrink tumors and reduce pain. The radiation targets the cancer cells, causing them to die or slow their growth rate. Radiation therapy can help relieve pain caused by cancer that has spread to the bone or nerves.
Nerve blocks involve injecting a local anesthetic or steroid medication into specific nerves to block pain signals from reaching the brain. There are two types of nerve blocks: sympathetic nerve blocks and neural blockade. Sympathetic nerve blocks are used to manage pain in the abdomen, pelvis, or legs, and neural blocks are used to manage pain in the head, neck, and arms.
Surgery may be used to treat cancer pain caused by tumors or to address other underlying conditions such as bone fractures. In some cases, surgery can be used to implant a pain pump that delivers pain medication directly to the spinal cord or specific nerve centers, helping to manage pain effectively.
Managing Cancer Pain at Home
While there is no cure for cancer, there are many strategies and tips that cancer patients can use to manage their pain at home. These include:
- Engaging in relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, and yoga
- Taking frequent breaks
- Using heating pads or ice packs to relieve pain
- Using topical creams or ointments
- Getting adequate rest and sleep
- Engaging in physical therapy or exercise to strengthen muscles and reduce pain
- Keeping a pain journal to track pain levels and identify triggers
When to Seek Help
Cancer patients experiencing pain should always consult their oncologists or pain specialists for the best advice on pain management. In some cases, pain may be a sign of infection or other underlying medical conditions that require prompt medical attention.
Coping with Emotional and Spiritual Pain
Cancer patients may experience emotional and spiritual pain in addition to physical pain. Emotional and spiritual pain can be caused by the cancer diagnosis, ongoing treatments, or other life stressors. Coping strategies for emotional and spiritual pain may include addressing emotional distress with a mental health professional or using spiritual practices such as prayer or meditation.
Coping with End-of-Life Pain
End-of-life pain is a common concern for cancer patients in palliative or hospice care. In these cases, end-of-life pain management focuses on reducing pain levels and improving the patient’s quality of life. Palliative care and hospice care teams work with the patient and their family to develop a personalized pain management plan that addresses the patient’s unique needs.
Cancer pain can be challenging, and effective management is critical for improving the patient’s quality of life. Thankfully, many strategies and treatments are available to help cancer patients manage pain effectively. Remember to always seek prompt medical care for any pain or discomfort and to explore all possible pain management options to find the best treatment for your unique needs.
- American Cancer Society (2019). Pain Control in People with Cancer. Retrieved from https://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatments-and-side-effects/physical-side-effects/pain/pain-control.html..
- National Cancer Institute (2019). Pain Control: Support for People With Cancer. Retrieved from https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/advanced-cancer/care-choices/pain-control-pdq.