Painkillers for controlling cancer pain
There are lots of ways to manage pain. This section tells you about painkillers. It also talks about other medicines you may have with your painkillers.
There are many painkillers available to treat different types and levels of pain. Painkilling drugs are known as analgesics. Your medical team will aim to find the right combination of painkillers for you.
Some people with cancer have constant pain, so they need to take painkillers regularly to keep the pain under control.
If you are prescribed painkillers, it’s important to take them at regular intervals. This is to make sure the medicines are as effective as possible. Your medicines will be most effective if you follow the schedule.
It’s important not to let pain increase until it becomes severe. Tell your doctor or nurse if your pain gets worse. Severe pain can cause fear, anxiety and difficulty sleeping. These things can make the pain worse and more difficult to control.
Not everyone who has cancer pain has advanced cancer. But if your cancer is advanced, we have a video about pain control for people with advanced cancer that you may find helpful.
Ways of taking painkillers
Painkillers are mostly taken by mouth – either as tablets or capsules. For people who find it hard to swallow, many oral medicines are available as liquids and some can be dissolved in water. Sometimes, painkillers may be given in other ways:
These are stuck onto the skin. They are useful when your pain is under control. They only need to be changed every few
Some painkillers can be rubbed onto the skin to help relieve pain in one area.
Buccal and sublingual medicines
These enter the bloodstream through the tissues in the mouth, so they don’t have to be swallowed. They are usually used for controlling breakthrough pain, as they work quickly.
Some painkillers can be sprayed into the nose. These work best for breakthrough pain.
These are inserted into the back passage of your bottom (also known as the rectum).
If you have a feeding tube such as a PEG (percutaneous endoscopic gastrostomy) or RIG (radiologically inserted gastrostomy), some liquid or soluble painkillers can be given through the tube.
Many painkillers can be given by injection, either into a muscle or more usually under the skin.
Some painkillers can be given by infusion over a period of time. There are different ways of giving painkillers by infusion:
This involves giving a continuous dose of a drug or drugs into a fine needle that is placed just under the skin. A small portable pump called syringe driver is used to give the drugs.
Intravenous infusion using a patient-controlled analgesia (PCA) pump
A PCA pump can be used to give pain relief after surgery. The pump has a button on a handset that you press to give yourself a set dose of a painkiller. If you need surgery, your doctors will give you more information about PCA.
Epidural and intrathecal analgesia
These may be used to relieve pain after surgery. They are also used during labour, when a woman is giving birth. Sometimes, they can be used to help people with cancer pain. An anaesthetist will manage this type of pain control. Your doctors or an anaesthetist will tell you more about epidural or intrathecal analgesia if you need them.