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Home Knowledge Center Wellness Library Cancer Pain (PDQ®): Supportive care - Patient Information [NCI]

Cancer Pain (PDQ®): Supportive care - Patient Information [NCI]

This information is produced and provided by the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The information in this topic may have changed since it was written. For the most current information, contact the National Cancer Institute via the Internet web site at or call 1-800-4-CANCER.

General Information About Cancer Pain

General Information About Cancer Pain

Cancer, cancer treatment, or diagnostic tests may cause you pain.

Pain is one of the most common symptoms in cancer patients. Pain can be caused by cancer, cancer treatment, or a combination of factors. Tumors, surgery, intravenous chemotherapy, radiation therapy, targeted therapy, therapies such as bisphosphonates, and diagnostic procedures may cause you pain.

Younger patients are more likely to have cancer pain and pain flares than older patients. Patients with advanced cancer have more severe pain, and many cancer survivors have pain that continues after cancer treatment ends.

This summary is about ways to control cancer pain in adults.

Pain can be managed before, during, and after tests and procedures.

Some tests and procedures are painful. It helps to start pain control before a procedure begins. Some drugs may be used to help you feel calm or fall asleep. Therapies such as imagery or relaxation can also help control pain and anxiety related to treatment. To help lower your anxiety, ask about the test before it begins so you know what to expect. Have a family member or friend stay with you during the procedure.

Different cancer treatments may cause specific types of pain.

Patients may have different types of pain from the treatments they receive, including:

  • Postoperative pain.
  • Spasms, stinging, and itching caused by intravenous chemotherapy.
  • Mucositis caused by chemotherapy or targeted therapy.
  • Ostealgia (bone pain) caused by filgrastim or pegfilgrastim, which are granulocyte colony-stimulating factors that help the body make more white blood cells.
  • Peripheral neuropathy caused by chemotherapy or targeted therapy.
  • Pain in joints and muscles caused by paclitaxel or aromatase inhibitor therapy.
  • Osteonecrosis of the jaw caused by bisphosphonates given for cancer that has spread to the bone.
  • Avascular necrosis caused by long-term use of corticosteroids.
  • Pain syndromes caused by radiation therapy, including:
    • Pain from brachytherapy.
    • Pain from lying in the same position during treatment.
    • Mucositis (inflammation of the mucous membranes in areas that were treated with radiation).
    • Dermatitis.
    • Pain flares.

Peripheral neuropathy is a type of pain that can be caused by chemotherapy.

Peripheral neuropathy is a nerve problem that can cause pain, numbness, and tingling in the hands and feet. Patients on chemotherapy may have chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy (CIPN). In some patients, CIPN may continue after chemotherapy has ended.

Studies of drugs and natural products used to treat CIPN have shown mixed results. Duloxetine is a drug that has been studied to treat CIPN.

Studies of acupuncture for CIPN have been reported. For more information about these studies, see the Chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy section in Acupuncture.

Cancer pain may continue after treatment ends.

Pain that is severe or continues after cancer treatment ends increases the risk of anxiety and depression. If you feel depressed or have anxiety, your pain may feel worse and make it harder to control. Some patients are unable to work because of the pain.

Pain control can improve your quality of life.

Pain can be controlled in most patients who have cancer. Although cancer pain cannot always be relieved completely, there are ways to lessen pain in most patients. Pain control can improve your quality of life during cancer treatment and after it ends.

Each patient needs a personal plan to control cancer pain.

Each person's diagnosis, cancer stage, response to pain, and personal likes and dislikes are different. For this reason, each patient needs a personal plan to control cancer pain. You, your family, and your healthcare team can work together to manage your pain. As part of your pain control plan, your healthcare provider can give you and your family members written instructions to manage your pain at home. Ask your healthcare provider who you should call if you have questions about your pain.

Assessment of Cancer Pain

Assessment of Cancer Pain

Your healthcare team will ask you about your pain to determine the best treatment.

It's important that the cause of your pain is found early and treated quickly. Your healthcare team will help you measure pain levels often, including at the following times:

  • After you start cancer treatment.
  • After you start a new pain treatment.
  • When you have new pain.

To learn about your pain, the healthcare team will ask you the following questions:

  • When did the pain start?
  • How long does the pain last?
  • Where is the pain? You will be asked to show exactly where the pain is on your body or on a drawing of a body.
  • How strong is the pain? You will be asked to rate your pain between 1-10, with 10 being the strongest.
  • Have there been changes in where or when the pain occurs?
  • What makes the pain better or worse?
  • Is the pain worse during certain times of the day or night?
  • Is there breakthrough pain?
  • Do you have trouble sleeping, or do you feel tired, depressed, or anxious?
  • Does pain get in the way of activities of daily life, such as when you eat, bathe, or move around?

Your healthcare team will also review your health history, including the following information:

  • Past and current pain treatments.
  • Prognosis.
  • Other conditions you may have, such as kidney, liver, or heart disease.
  • Past and current use of nicotine, alcohol, or sleeping pills.
  • Personal or family history of substance use disorder.
  • Personal history of mental health disorders or abuse.
  • Your choices for your pain control plan.

The information you give your healthcare team will be used to decide how to help relieve your pain. Treatment may include drugs or non-drug therapies. In some cases, patients are referred to pain or palliative care specialists. Your healthcare team will work with you to decide whether the benefits of treatment outweigh any risks. They will also let you know how much relief to expect from your pain treatment. Your doctor will continue to ask you how well your treatment is working and make changes if needed.

A family member or caregiver may be asked to give answers for a patient who has problems with speech, language, or understanding.

Physical and neurological exams will be done to help plan pain control.

The following exams will be done:

  • Physical exam: An exam of the body to check general signs of health, including checking for signs of disease, such as lumps or anything else that seems unusual.
  • Neurological exam: A series of questions and tests to check the brain, spinal cord, and nerve function. The exam checks your mental status, coordination, and ability to walk normally, and how well the muscles, senses, and reflexes work. This may also be called a neuro exam or a neurologic exam.

Your healthcare team will also assess your psychological, social, and spiritual needs.

Using Drugs to Control Cancer Pain

Using Drugs to Control Cancer Pain

Drugs will be given based on whether your pain is mild, moderate, or severe.

Your doctor will prescribe drugs to help relieve your pain. These drugs need to be taken at scheduled times to keep a constant level of the drug in the body to help keep the pain from coming back. Drugs may be taken by mouth or given in other ways, such as by infusion or injection.

Your doctor may prescribe extra doses of a drug for pain that occurs between scheduled doses of the drug. The doctor will adjust the drug dose for your needs.

A scale from 0 to 10 is used to measure how severe the pain is and decide which pain medicine to use. On this scale:

  • 0 means no pain.
  • 1 to 3 means mild pain.
  • 4 to 6 means moderate pain.
  • 7 to 10 means severe pain.

Other pain scales that use happy or sad faces may be used for those who have trouble giving their pain a number. These scales are useful for adults who have trouble with memory or thinking, and with young children.

Acetaminophen and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) may be used to relieve mild pain.

Acetaminophen and NSAIDs help relieve mild pain. They may be given with opioids for moderate to severe pain.

Pain relievers of this type include:

  • Celecoxib.
  • Diclofenac.
  • Ibuprofen.
  • Ketoprofen.
  • Ketorolac.

Side effects of NSAIDs include stomach, kidney, heart, and blood problems. Patients, especially older patients, who take acetaminophen or NSAIDs need to be closely watched for side effects. For more information, see Treating Cancer Pain in Older Patients.

Opioids are used to relieve moderate to severe pain.

Opioids work well to relieve moderate to severe pain. Some patients with cancer stop getting pain relief from opioids if they take them for a long time. This is called tolerance. Larger doses or a different opioid may be needed if your body stops responding to the same dose. Tolerance of an opioid is a physical dependence on it. This is not the same as addiction (psychological dependence).

Since 1999, the number of prescriptions written for opioids and the number of deaths caused by drug overdose in the United States have increased. Although most patients who are prescribed opioids for cancer pain use them safely, some patients may become addicted to opioids. Your doctor will monitor your opioid doses so that you are treated for pain safely.

There are several types of opioids:

  • Buprenorphine.
  • Codeine.
  • Fentanyl.
  • Hydrocodone.
  • Hydromorphone.
  • Methadone.
  • Morphine (the most common opioid for cancer pain).
  • Oxycodone.
  • Oxymorphone.
  • Tapentadol.
  • Tramadol.

The doctor will prescribe drugs and the times they should be taken to best control your pain. It is important that patients and family caregivers know how to safely use, store, and dispose of opioids.

Most patients with cancer pain will receive opioids on a regular schedule.

Opioids are given on a regular schedule to help relieve the pain and keep it from getting worse. The amount of time between doses depends on which opioid you take. The best dose is the amount of opioid that controls your pain with the fewest side effects. If opioid tolerance does occur (the opioid no longer works at the dose you are given), the dose may need to be increased or a different opioid may be prescribed.

Opioids are given in different ways.

Opioids may be given by the following ways:

  • Mouth: If your stomach and intestines work normally, medicine is usually taken by mouth. Opioids given orally are easy to use and are usually low-cost. Oral opioids are absorbed when placed under the tongue (sublingual route) or on the inside of the cheek (buccal route).
  • Rectum: If you cannot take opioids by mouth, they may be given as rectal suppositories.
  • Skin patches: Opioid patches are placed on the skin (transdermal route).
  • Nose spray: Opioids may be given in the form of a nasal spray.
  • Intravenous (IV) line: Opioids are given into a vein when simpler and less costly methods cannot be used, don't work, or are not wanted by the patient. Patient-controlled analgesia (PCA) pumps are one way to control pain through your IV line. A PCA pump allows you to control the amount of drug that is used. With a PCA pump, you can receive a preset opioid dose by pressing a button on a pump that is connected to a small tube. Once the pain is controlled, the doctor may prescribe regular opioid doses based on the amount you used with the PCA pump.
  • Subcutaneous injection: Opioids are injected into the fatty layer of tissue just under the skin.
  • Intraspinal injection: Opioids are injected into the fluid around the spinal cord. These may be combined with a local anesthetic to help some patients who have pain that is hard to control.

There are common side effects caused by opioids.

Your doctor will discuss the side effects with you before opioid treatment begins and will watch you for side effects. The following are the most common side effects:

  • Nausea.
  • Drowsiness.
  • Constipation.

Nausea and drowsiness most often occur when opioid treatment is first started and usually get better within a few days.

Opioids slow down the muscle contractions and movement in the stomach and intestines, which can cause hard stools. To keep the stool soft and prevent constipation, it's important to drink plenty of fluids, increase fiber in the diet, and get regular exercise. Unless there are problems such as a blocked bowel or diarrhea, you will be given a treatment plan to prevent constipation and other digestive problems while taking opioids.

Other side effects of opioid treatment include the following:

  • Dry mouth.
  • Vomiting.
  • Low blood pressure.
  • Dizziness.
  • Trouble sleeping.
  • Trouble thinking clearly.
  • Sedation.
  • Delirium or hallucinations.
  • Muscle jerks.
  • Seizures.
  • Hyperalgesia.
  • Trouble urinating.
  • Breathing problems that may get worse with sleep apnea, obesity, or when taking opioids with sedatives.
  • Severe itching.
  • Problems with sexual function.
  • Hot flashes.
  • Depression.
  • Hypoglycemia.

Opioids are more likely to cause damage to the nervous system in patients with the following risk factors:

  • Taking morphine or codeine.
  • Older age.
  • Kidney problems.
  • Infection.
  • Dehydration.

Talk to your doctor about side effects that bother you or become severe. Your doctor may decrease the dose of the opioid, change to a different opioid, or change the way the opioid is given to help decrease the side effects. For more information about coping with these side effects, see the following:

  • Gastrointestinal Complications
  • Nausea and Vomiting Related to Cancer Treatment

Other drugs may be added to help treat your pain.

Other drugs may be given while you take opioids for pain relief. These are drugs that help the opioids work better, treat symptoms, and relieve certain types of pain. The following types of drugs may be used:

  • Antidepressants.
  • Anticonvulsants.
  • Local anesthetics.
  • Corticosteroids.
  • Bisphosphonates and denosumab.

Patients will not always respond in the same way to these drugs. Side effects are common and should be reported to your doctor.

Bisphosphonates (pamidronate, zoledronic acid, and ibandronate) are drugs that may be given when cancer has spread to the bones. They are given as an intravenous infusion and combined with other treatments to decrease pain and reduce risk of broken bones. However, bisphosphonates sometimes cause severe side effects. Talk to your doctor if you have severe muscle or bone pain. Bisphosphonate therapy may need to be stopped.

The use of bisphosphonates is also linked to the risk of bisphosphonate-associated osteonecrosis (BON). For more information, see Oral Complications of Chemotherapy and Head/Neck Radiation.

Denosumab is another drug that may be used when cancer has spread to the bones. It is given as a subcutaneous injection and may help prevent and relieve pain.

Other Treatments for Cancer Pain

Other Treatments for Cancer Pain

Most cancer pain can be controlled with drugs, but some patients have too many side effects from drugs or have pain in a certain part of the body that needs to be treated in a different way. Talk to your doctor to help decide which methods work best to relieve your pain. Other treatments include nerve blocks, surgery, radiation therapy and palliative care.

Nerve blocks

A nerve block is the injection of either a local anesthetic or other drug into or around a nerve to block pain. Nerve blocks help control pain that can't be controlled in other ways. Nerve blocks may also be used to find where the pain is coming from, to predict how the pain will respond to long-term treatments, and to prevent pain after certain procedures.

Neurological treatments

Surgery can be done to insert a device that delivers drugs or stimulates the nerves with mild electric current.


Cordotomy is a less common surgery that is used to relieve pain by cutting certain nerves in the spinal cord. This blocks pain and hot/cold feelings. This procedure may be chosen for patients who are near the end of life and have severe pain that cannot be relieved in other ways.

Palliative care

Certain patients are helped by palliative care services. Palliative care providers may also be called supportive care providers. They work in teams that include doctors, nurses, mental health specialists, social workers, chaplains, pharmacists, and dietitians. Some of the goals of palliative care are to:

  • Improve quality of life for patients and their families.
  • Manage pain and non-pain symptoms.
  • Support patients who need higher doses of opioids, have a history of substance use disorder, or are coping with emotional and social problems.

For more information, see Planning the Transition to End-of-Life Care in Advanced Cancer.

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy is used to relieve pain in patients with skin lesions, tumors, or cancer that has spread to the bone. This is called palliative radiation therapy. It may be given as local therapy directly to the tumor or to larger areas of the body. Radiation therapy helps drugs and other treatments work better by shrinking tumors that cause pain. Radiation therapy may help patients with bone pain move more freely and with less pain.

The following types of radiation therapy may be used:

External radiation therapy

External radiation therapy uses a machine outside the body to send high-energy x-rays or other types of radiation toward the area of the body with cancer. External radiation therapy relieves pain from cancer that has spread to the bone. Radiation therapy may be given in a single dose or divided into several smaller doses given over time. The decision to have a single or divided dose may depend on how easy it is to get the treatments and how much they cost. Some patients who find little or no pain relief from first-time radiation therapy may benefit from repeated radiation therapy.

Patients may have a pain flare after receiving palliative radiation therapy for cancer that has spread to the bone, but this side effect is only temporary.


Radiopharmaceuticals are drugs that have 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 external radiation therapy.

Physical medicine and rehabilitation

Patients with cancer and pain may lose their strength, freedom of movement, and ability to manage their daily activities. Physical therapy or occupational therapy may help these patients.

Physical medicine uses physical methods, such as exercise and machines, to prevent and treat disease or injury.

Some patients may be referred to a physiatrist (a doctor who specializes in physical medicine) who can develop a personal plan for them. Some physiatrists are also trained in procedures to treat and manage pain.

Integrative therapies

Complementary and alternative therapies combined with standard treatment may be used to treat pain. They are also called integrative therapies. Acupuncture, support groups, and hypnosis are a few integrative therapies that have been used to relieve pain.

Treating Cancer Pain in Older Patients

Treating Cancer Pain in Older Patients

Certain factors affect cancer pain treatment in older adults.

Some problems are more likely in patients 65 years and older. For caregivers of these patients, the following should be kept in mind:

Older patients may be prescribed more than one drug.

Older patients may have more than one chronic disease and take several drugs for different conditions. This can increase the risk of drug interactions. Drugs taken together can change how they work in the body and can affect the patient's chronic diseases.

Doses start at lower levels.

Pain medicine is started at lower doses in older patients and adjusted slowly to allow for differences in their pain threshold, pain expression, and effects on physical and mental function. Lower doses given to older patients may provide better pain relief that lasts longer than in younger patients.

Side effects from drugs are more likely in older patients.

Older patients should be watched closely for side effects from opioids and NSAIDs. See common side effects caused by opioids for more information. Other drugs may be given to avoid side effects from certain NSAIDs:

  • Acetaminophen.
  • Proton pump inhibitors (given with NSAIDs).
  • Topical NSAIDs.
  • COX-2 -selective NSAIDs (NSAIDs that cause fewer problems with the stomach and intestines).

There is a risk of undertreatment (not receiving enough treatment) in older patients.

Undertreatment in older patients may occur for the following reasons:

  • Patients do not report their pain.
  • Patients are not able to talk about the pain they have.
  • The doctor is concerned about side effects or changes in patient behavior that may be caused by pain medicine.

Poor pain control may cause other problems in older patients, including the following:

  • Reduced physical or mental function.
  • Slow recovery.
  • Changes in appetite or sleep.
  • Increased need for care and assistance with health problems.

Treating depression in patients can also help with pain treatment.

To Learn More About Cancer Pain

To Learn More About Cancer Pain

For more information from the National Cancer Institute about cancer pain, see the following:

  • Pain and Cancer Treatment: Side Effects
  • Cancer Pain Control: Support for People with Cancer
  • The Opioid Epidemic and Cancer Pain Management
About This PDQ Summary

About This PDQ Summary

About PDQ

Physician Data Query (PDQ) is the National Cancer Institute's (NCI's) comprehensive cancer information database. The PDQ database contains summaries of the latest published information on cancer prevention, detection, genetics, treatment, supportive care, and complementary and alternative medicine. Most summaries come in two versions. The health professional versions have detailed information written in technical language. The patient versions are written in easy-to-understand, nontechnical language. Both versions have cancer information that is accurate and up to date and most versions are also available in Spanish.

PDQ is a service of the NCI. The NCI is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). NIH is the federal government's center of biomedical research. The PDQ summaries are based on an independent review of the medical literature. They are not policy statements of the NCI or the NIH.

Purpose of This Summary

This PDQ cancer information summary has current information about the causes and treatment of pain. It is meant to inform and help patients, families, and caregivers. It does not give formal guidelines or recommendations for making decisions about health care.

Reviewers and Updates

Editorial Boards write the PDQ cancer information summaries and keep them up to date. These Boards are made up of experts in cancer treatment and other specialties related to cancer. The summaries are reviewed regularly and changes are made when there is new information. The date on each summary ("Updated") is the date of the most recent change.

The information in this patient summary was taken from the health professional version, which is reviewed regularly and updated as needed, by the PDQ Supportive and Palliative Care Editorial Board.

Clinical Trial Information

A clinical trial is a study to answer a scientific question, such as whether one treatment is better than another. Trials are based on past studies and what has been learned in the laboratory. Each trial answers certain scientific questions in order to find new and better ways to help cancer patients. During treatment clinical trials, information is collected about the effects of a new treatment and how well it works. If a clinical trial shows that a new treatment is better than one currently being used, the new treatment may become "standard." Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.

Clinical trials can be found online at NCI's website. For more information, call the Cancer Information Service (CIS), NCI's contact center, at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237).

Permission to Use This Summary

PDQ is a registered trademark. The content of PDQ documents can be used freely as text. It cannot be identified as an NCI PDQ cancer information summary unless the whole summary is shown and it is updated regularly. However, a user would be allowed to write a sentence such as "NCI's PDQ cancer information summary about breast cancer prevention states the risks in the following way: [include excerpt from the summary]."

The best way to cite this PDQ summary is:

PDQ® Supportive and Palliative Care Editorial Board. PDQ Cancer Pain. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Updated <MM/DD/YYYY>. Available at: Accessed <MM/DD/YYYY>. [PMID: 26389322]

Images in this summary are used with permission of the author(s), artist, and/or publisher for use in the PDQ summaries only. If you want to use an image from a PDQ summary and you are not using the whole summary, you must get permission from the owner. It cannot be given by the National Cancer Institute. Information about using the images in this summary, along with many other images related to cancer can be found in Visuals Online. Visuals Online is a collection of more than 3,000 scientific images.


The information in these summaries should not be used to make decisions about insurance reimbursement. More information on insurance coverage is available on on the Managing Cancer Care page.

Contact Us

More information about contacting us or receiving help with the website can be found on our Contact Us for Help page. Questions can also be submitted to through the website's E-mail Us.

Last Revised: 2023-11-01

If you want to know more about cancer and how it is treated, or if you wish to know about clinical trials for your type of cancer, you can call the NCI's Cancer Information Service at 1-800-422-6237, toll free. A trained information specialist can talk with you and answer your questions.

This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise, Incorporated, disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information. Your use of this information means that you agree to the Terms of Use. Learn how we develop our content.

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