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Pain (PDQ®)

Patient Version
Last Modified: 04/10/2014

Radiation Therapy for Pain



Radiation therapy may be used to relieve bone pain.

Radiation therapy is used to relieve pain in patients with 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 are causing 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 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 a period of time. The decision whether to have single or divided dose radiation therapy may depend on how convenient the treatments are and how much they cost.

Stereotactic body radiation therapy

Stereotactic body radiation therapy (SBRT) is a type of external radiation therapy that uses special equipment to position a patient and give a single large dose of radiation to a tumor. This type of radiation therapy causes less damage to nearby normal tissue. SBRT may be used to treat tumors that have spread to the bone, especially spinal tumors. SBRT may also be used to treat areas that have already received radiation.

Radiopharmaceuticals

Radiopharmaceuticals are drugs that contain 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 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.

Radiofrequency ablation

Radiofrequency ablation uses a special probe with tiny electrodes to kill cancer cells. Sometimes the probe is inserted directly through the skin and only local anesthesia is needed. In other cases, the probe is inserted through an incision in the abdomen. This is done in the hospital with general anesthesia. This procedure may relieve pain in patients who have cancer that has spread to the bone. More studies are needed to learn about possible risks and benefits.

Radiation therapy with bisphosphonates

The use of radiation therapy given together with bisphosphonates is being studied in patients with cancer that has spread to the bone. More studies are needed to find out if this relieves pain better than radiation therapy alone.