Questions About Cancer? 1-800-4-CANCER

Pain Control: Support for People with Cancer

  • Posted: 07/16/2012

Types and Causes of Cancer Pain

Cancer pain can range from mild to very severe. Some days it can be worse than others. It can be caused by the cancer itself, the treatment, or both.

You may also have pain that has nothing to do with your cancer. Some people have other health issues or headaches and muscle strains. But always check with your doctor before taking any over-the-counter medicine to relieve everyday aches and pains. This will help ensure that there will be no interactions with other drugs or safety concerns to know about.

Different types of pain

Here are the common terms used to describe different types of pain:

  • Acute pain ranges from mild to severe. It comes on quickly and lasts a short time.

  • Chronic pain ranges from mild to severe. It either won't go away or comes back often.

  • Breakthrough pain is an intense rise in pain that occurs suddenly or is felt for a short time. It can occur by itself or in relation to a certain activity. It may happen several times a day, even when you're taking the right dose of medicine. For example, it may happen as the current dose of your medicine is wearing off.

What causes cancer pain?

Cancer and its treatment cause most cancer pain. Major causes of pain include:

  • Pain from medical tests. Some methods used to diagnose cancer or see how well treatment is working are painful. Examples may be a biopsy, spinal tap, or bone marrow test. If you are told you need the procedure, don't let concerns about pain stop you from having it done. Talk with your doctor ahead of time about what will be done to lessen any pain you may have.

  • Pain from a tumor. If the cancer grows bigger or spreads, it can cause pain by pressing on the tissues around it. For example, a tumor can cause pain if it presses on bones, nerves, the spinal cord, or body organs.

  • Spinal cord compression. When a tumor spreads to the spine, it can press on the spinal cord and cause spinal cord compression. The first sign of this is often back or neck pain, or both. Coughing, sneezing, or other motions may make it worse.

  • Pain from treatment. Chemotherapy, radiation therapy, surgery, and other treatments may cause pain for some people. Some examples of pain from treatment are:
    • Neuropathic pain. This is pain that may occur if treatment damages the nerves. The pain is often burning, sharp, or shooting. The cancer itself can also cause this kind of pain.
    • Phantom pain. You may still feel pain or other discomfort coming from a body part that has been removed by surgery. Doctors aren't sure why this happens, but it's real.

How much pain you feel depends on different things. These include where the cancer is in your body, what kind of damage it is causing, and how you experience the pain in your body. Everyone is different.

Call your doctors right away

Listen to your body. If you notice that everyday actions, such as coughing, sneezing, moving, walking, or standing, suddenly cause new pain or your pain to get worse, tell your doctors right away. Also let them know if you have unusual rashes or bowel or bladder changes.