Questions About Cancer? 1-800-4-CANCER

Pain Control: Support for People with Cancer

  • Updated: 05/16/2014

Other Ways To Control Pain

Along with your pain medicine, your health care team may suggest you try other methods to control your pain. However, unlike pain medicine, some of these methods have not been tested in cancer pain studies. But they may help improve your quality of life by helping you with your pain, as well as stress, anxiety, and coping with cancer. Some of these methods are called complementary or integrative.

These treatments include everything from cold packs, massage, acupuncture, hypnosis, and imagery to biofeedback, meditation, and therapeutic touch. Once you learn how, you can do some of them by yourself. For others, you may have to see a specialist to receive these treatments. If you do, ask if they are licensed experts.


Acupuncture is a form of Chinese medicine. It involves inserting very thin, metal needles into the skin at certain points of the body. (Applying pressure to these points with just the thumbs or fingertips is called acupressure.) The goal is to change the body's energy flow so it can heal itself.

When receiving this treatment, you may have a slight ache, dull pain, tingling, or electrical-feeling sensation for a few seconds after the needles are inserted. Once the needles are in place, though, you shouldn't feel any discomfort. They remain in place for 15 to 30 minutes. However, it may be more or less, depending on what the practitioner suggests.

Acupuncture has been shown to help with nausea and vomiting related to cancer treatment. And some studies have shown it may help with cancer pain. Before getting acupuncture, talk with your health care team to make sure it's safe for your type of cancer. If it is, your health care team can suggest a licensed acupuncturist. Many hospitals and cancer centers have one on staff.


Biofeedback uses machines to teach you how to control certain body functions, such as heart rate, breathing, and muscle tension. You probably never think of these body functions because they happen on their own. But learning how to control them may help you relax and cope with pain. Biofeedback is often used with other pain relief methods. If you're interested in trying this method, you must see a licensed biofeedback technician.


Distraction is simply turning your focus to something other than the pain. It may be used alone to manage mild pain, or used with medicines to help with acute pain, such as pain related to procedures or tests. Or you may try it while waiting for your pain medicine to start working.

More than likely, you've done this method without realizing it. For example, watching television and listening to music are good ways to distract your mind. In fact, any activity that can focus your attention can be used for distraction. You can count, sing, or pray. You could try slow rhythmic breathing or repeat certain phrases over and over again, such as "I can cope."

You could do certain activities that take your mind from the pain. Some of these may be crafts or hobbies, reading, going to a movie, or visiting friends.

Heat and Cold

Heat may relieve sore muscles, while cold may numb the pain. However, ask your doctor if it is safe to use either during treatment. Do not use them for more than 10 minutes at a time. And do not use heat or cold over any area where circulation is poor.

For cold, try plastic gel packs that remain soft even when frozen. You can find them in drug and medical-supply stores. Of course, you always can use ice cubes wrapped in a towel or frozen water in a paper cup.

For heat, you can use a heating pad. But you also can try gel packs heated in hot water, hot-water bottles, a hot, moist towel, and hot baths and showers. Be careful not to leave heat on too long to avoid burns.


Hypnosis is a trance-like state of relaxed and focused attention. People describe it as a lot like the way they feel when they first wake up in the morning. Their eyes are closed, but they're aware of what's going on around them. In this relaxed state, people's minds are usually more receptive or open to suggestion. As a result, hypnosis can be used to block the awareness of pain or to help you change the sensation of pain to a more pleasant one.

You'll need to see a person who is trained in hypnosis, often a psychologist or psychiatrist. He or she may also be able to teach you how to place yourself in a trance-like state, by making positive suggestions to yourself.


Imagery is like a daydream. You close your eyes and create images in your mind to help you relax, feel less anxious, and sleep. You daydream using all of your senses - sight, touch, hearing, smell, and taste. For example, you may want to think of a place or activity that made you happy in the past. You could explore this scene, which could help reduce your pain both during and after you try it.

If you have to stay in bed or can't leave the house, imagery may help. It may lessen the closed-in feelings you have after being indoors for a long time. See How to Use Imagery for an exercise on how to use imagery.


Massage may help reduce pain and anxiety. It may also help with fatigue and stress. It is pressing, rubbing, and kneading parts of the body with hands or special tools. For pain, a steady, circular motion near the pain site may work best. Massage may also help relieve tension and increase blood flow. Deep or intense pressure should not be used with cancer patients unless their healthcare team says it's okay to do so.


Meditation is a form of mind-body medicine used to help relax the body and quiet the mind. It may help with pain, as well as with worry, stress, or depression.

People who are meditating use certain techniques such as focusing attention on something, like a word or phrase, an object, or the breath. They may sit, lie down, walk, or be in any other position that makes them feel comfortable. A goal while meditating is to try to have an open attitude toward distracting thoughts or emotions. When they occur, attention is gently brought back to breathing or the silent repeating of phrases.

"I began meditating as a way to help relieve my pain and calm myself. I can't avoid medicine, but I feel like I don't have to take as much." - Anna


Relaxation reduces pain or keeps it from getting worse by getting rid of tension in your muscles. It may help you sleep and give you more energy. Relaxation may also reduce anxiety and help you cope with stress.

The most common methods of relaxation are:

  • Visual concentration. When you stare at an object.

  • Breathing and muscle tensing. This is breathing in and tensing the muscles, then breathing out while letting your muscles go. See Relaxation Exercises for an exercise on how to use breathing and muscle tensing.

  • Slow rhythmic breathing. To do this, you breathe slowly in and out while concentrating on an object. You can add imagery to slow rhythmic breathing or listen to music too. See Relaxation Exercises for an exercise on how to use slow rhythmic breathing.

Sometimes, relaxation is hard if you're in severe pain. You could try using some of the methods that are quick and easy. These may be rhythmic massage or breathing and muscle tensing. Some people use music or other types of art therapy to help them relax.

Sometimes breathing too deeply can cause shortness of breath. If this happens, take shallow breaths or breathe more slowly. Also, as you start to relax, you may fall asleep. If you don't want to sleep, sit in a hard chair or set a timer or alarm before you start the exercise.

Other Methods

Here are some other ways people have tried to find relief from cancer pain.

  • Physical Therapy. Exercises or methods used to help restore strength, increase movement to muscles, and relieve pain.

  • Reiki. A form of energy medicine in which the provider places his or her hands on or near the patient. The intent is to transmit what is believed to be a life force energy called qi (or chi).

  • Tai Chi. A mind-body practice that is a series of slow, gentle movements with a focus on breathing and concentration. The thought is that it helps what is believed to be a life force energy (called qi) flow through the body.

  • Yoga. Systems of stretches and poses with special focus given to breathing. It is meant to calm the nervous system and balance the body, mind, and spirit. There are different types of yoga, so ask about which ones would be best for you.
Make sure that you see a licensed expert when trying physical therapy, massage, hypnosis, or acupuncture.

To learn more about complementary treatments for pain:

Remember: Always talk with your doctor before using any complementary pain treatments. Some may interfere with your cancer treatment.