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Non-pharmacological Management of Cancer Pain


What do I need to know about cancer pain? Some people who have cancer experience pain. The pain may be short-term or long-term. It may come and go. Pain management is an important part of cancer care.

What causes cancer pain?

  • As the tumor grows and becomes larger, it may damage, block, or put pressure on tissues, nerves, and blood vessels.

  • Some cancer cells may produce chemicals that cause pain.

  • Chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or surgery may cause pain.

How is cancer pain diagnosed? You may need the following to check how much pain you have or find its cause:

  • Physical examination: Your caregiver will examine you and look for painful areas. He may touch or press different places on your body.

  • Pain diary: Write down what makes your pain better and worse. Also include when your pain begins and ends.

  • Pain scales: These may help measure how much pain you feel. There are many pain scales that include numbers or faces. Your caregiver may ask you to rate the pain on a scale of 0 to 10.
    Pain Scale

  • Imaging tests: You may need imaging tests to look for the cause of your cancer pain. These may include x-rays, a CT scan, and a MRI test. You may be given dye to help the pictures show up better. Tell the caregiver if you have ever had an allergic reaction to contrast dye. Do not enter the MRI room with anything metal. Metal can cause serious injury. Tell the caregiver if you have any metal in or on your body.

  • Stimulation tests: These may help to find which nerves or muscles are affected by pain. These tests may include electromyography (EMG), nerve conduction studies, and evoked potential (EP) studies.

What is non-pharmacologic treatment for cancer pain? These therapies are used in addition to medicine to decrease or control cancer pain. Talk to your caregiver to find out which therapy is right for you.

  • Heat: Heat helps decrease pain and muscle spasms. Apply heat to the area for 20 to 30 minutes every 2 hours for as many days as directed.

  • Ice: Ice helps decrease swelling and pain. Ice may also help prevent tissue damage. Use an ice pack or put crushed ice in a plastic bag. Cover it with a towel and place it on the area for 15 to 20 minutes every hour as directed.

  • Rehabilitation: This may include physical and occupational therapy. A physical therapist teaches you exercises to help improve movement and strength, and to decrease pain. An occupational therapist teaches you skills to help with your daily activities.

  • Electrical stimulation: This uses a device that sends mild and safe electrical signals. These signals decrease your pain when used over a painful body part.

  • Surgery and other procedures: Your caregiver may use ultrasound, radio waves, thermal (heat), or laser therapy to relieve your pain. Surgery may also be needed to help relieve your pain. This may include cutting nerves or repairing joints that are the cause of your chronic pain.

What other things may help control or reduce cancer pain?

  • Aromatherapy: This is a way of using scents to relax, relieve stress, and decrease pain. Aromatherapy uses oils, extracts, or fragrances from flowers, herbs, and trees. They may be inhaled or used during massages, facials, body wraps, and baths.

  • Biofeedback: This teaches your body to respond differently to the stress of being in pain. Caregivers may use a biofeedback machine to help you know when your body is relaxed.

  • Meditation: This therapy teaches you how to focus inside yourself. The goal of meditation is to help you feel more calm and peaceful.

  • Hypnosis: A caregiver will put you in a trancelike state and then suggest things that may help you manage pain.

  • Dietary supplements: Vitamins, minerals, herbs, or other plants may be given to ease cancer pain.

  • Acupuncture: This therapy uses very thin needles to balance energy channels in the body. This is thought to help reduce symptoms like pain.

What are the risks of cancer pain? Cancer pain can make it hard for you to eat and sleep. You may lack energy or the ability to do things. It can also affect your mood and your relationships with others.

Where can I find support and more information?

  • National Cancer Institute
    6116 Executive Boulevard, Suite 300
    Bethesda , MD 20892-8322
    Phone: 1- 800 - 422-6237
    Web Address:

When should I contact my caregiver? Contact your caregiver if:

  • Your pain does not get better, or you have new pain.

  • You still feel anxious or irritable after your therapy.

  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

When should I seek immediate care? Seek care immediately or call 911 if:

  • You feel so depressed that you cannot cope with your disease.

  • You have problems thinking clearly.

  • You have severe chest pain and trouble breathing all of a sudden.


You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your caregivers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

© 2014 Truven Health Analytics Inc. Information is for End User's use only and may not be sold, redistributed or otherwise used for commercial purposes. All illustrations and images included in CareNotes® are the copyrighted property of A.D.A.M., Inc. or Truven Health Analytics.

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