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Medical therapies for pain

Sometimes medicines or physical, psychological or complementary methods cannot relieve severe pain related to cancer. More aggressive or invasive methods may be needed.

Surgery

Different types of surgery may be used to help manage severe pain. Removing as much of a tumour as possible is called debulking. Reducing the size of a tumour can relieve pain by lowering the pressure on nearby tissues or organs.

In serious cases, surgery may be used to cut nerves, often near the spinal cord. Cutting the nerves interrupts the pathways that take pain signals to the brain. This surgery is only done in certain cases and when other methods of pain control do not work.

Surgery may be used to fix (stabilize) bones in the spine so the person doesn’t have pain when they move. Surgery may also be used to prevent complications from a tumour or its treatment, such as a blocked small intestine or colon.

Find out more about surgery.

Epidural anesthetic

Epidural anesthetic (also called spinal anesthetic) involves giving pain medicines into the area around the spinal cord using a needle or catheter (tube) placed in the space next to the spine. It is given by an anesthesiologist. Doctors may use this type of treatment when other methods of pain control do not work.

Nerve block

A nerve block is a procedure in which the doctor injects drugs into or around a nerve or into the space around the spinal cord. The drugs used are a local anesthetic and medicine to block pain, such as alcohol, steroid or opioid. The drugs block pain by destroying nerve tissue or blocking pain signals so they cannot reach the brain.

Nerve blocks can help if the pain can be traced to one damaged nerve. How a nerve block is done, as well as the risks and benefits of the procedure, will depend on where the nerve is located.

Neurostimulators

Neurostimulators are devices that can be permanently placed in the body. These devices send electrical impulses that block pain signals from nerves so they cannot reach the brain. Neurostimulators are used in certain cases to treat chronic back or leg pain that does not respond to other pain control methods.

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy uses high-energy rays or particles to destroy cancer cells. It can relieve pain by shrinking a tumour that is pressing on nerves, organs or the spinal cord. Radiation therapy can also be used to relieve pain by treating cancer that has spread to the bone, which is called bone metastases. Sometimes only a few doses of radiation are needed to ease pain.

External beam radiation therapy is most commonly used to relieve pain. Stereotactic radiation therapy may be used to direct radiation therapy to very specific areas, such as a tumour in or near the spine or around areas that have already been given radiation. Radioisotope therapy or systemic radiation may be used to relieve pain from cancer that has spread to the bone.

Find out more about radiation therapy.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy uses anticancer (cytotoxic) drugs to prevent cancer cells from growing and spreading. It may be used to shrink a tumour to reduce pain.

Find out more about chemotherapy.

Hormonal therapy

Hormonal therapy changes hormone levels in the body to slow the growth and spread of cancer cells. It may be used to relieve pain by shrinking a tumour that uses hormones to help it grow, such as breast or prostate cancer.

Find out more about hormonal therapy.

Strengthening bones

Cancer that spreads to the bones often causes pain and can make the bones weak and more likely to break. Cementoplasty uses cement to fill parts of a bone that have been damaged by cancer. It can be used to make the bone more stable and so reduce pain. For example, bone cement may be injected into damaged vertebrae, which are the bones of the spinal column that support and protect the spinal cord. Strengthening the vertebrae can ease pain and help support the spine.

Physical therapy

Physical therapy uses exercises or other methods to help restore strength, increase movement and relieve pain. A physiotherapist or occupational therapist can teach you how to save energy and reduce pain by spreading out your activities during the day. Wheelchairs, walkers or splints may reduce pain and make it easier to move. Physical therapy sometimes includes blocking pain signals with heat or cold.

anesthesiologist

A doctor who specializes in giving anesthetics (drugs that cause a loss of feeling or awareness).

Also called anesthetist.

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