Non-drug treatments to help with cancer pain

Some people find non-drug treatments and complementary therapies helpful in managing cancer pain. They can be used along with painkillers or sometimes on their own.

Some treatments, such as talking therapies, aim to relax and destress your mind and body. Some people use physical therapies to help control pain.

Physiotherapy and exercise

Pain can stop you from using the part of your body that hurts. But as your muscles or joints stiffen, this can lead to more pain.

Exercise can be an important part of managing pain. It helps your body release endorphins. These are natural substances produced in your body that have a painkilling effect. 

A physiotherapist:

  • may be able to help reduce pain and stiffness with gentle massage and exercise 
  • can help you stay active and show you exercises which may help with pain relief.

You can ask your doctor or physiotherapist whether it is safe to exercise and what type of activity may help.

TENS (trans-cutaneous electrical nerve stimulation)

TENS is a way of managing pain using a mild electrical current.

A TENS machine is a small battery-powered device. Wires from the TENS machine attach to sticky pads that you put on the surface of your skin, near the area of pain.

When you turn the machine on, it sends a small electrical current to the affected area. It feels like a tingling sensation. The machine has a dial that allows you to control the strength of the current. Some people find that using a TENS machine helps ease their pain.

Talk to your healthcare team before using a TENS machine. They are not suitable for everyone. 

A pain team, physiotherapist or palliative care team can advise you whether TENS may be suitable for you. They can show you how to use the machine. They may be able to lend you one for a short time. If it works well for you, you can hire or buy one from a pharmacy or online.

You should always continue to take your prescribed painkillers. A TENS machine is a way of helping you to keep your pain under control when used alongside your prescribed painkillers. A TENS machine alone will not be enough to manage the pain.

Complementary therapies

There are different complementary therapies that may help with pain. Some people find these helpful, but they do not work for everyone.

If you would like to try a complementary therapy, always talk to your doctor first. Complementary therapies should not replace any treatments prescribed by your doctor.

Always use a qualified therapist. The British Complementary Medicine Association (BCMA) has details of qualified therapists. Your hospital team or local hospice may also be able to recommend someone.

  • Acupuncture

    Acupuncture may help some people with cancer pain. Some doctors think it may work by stimulating the body to produce endorphins, which are the body’s natural painkillers.

    Acupuncture uses fine needles inserted just under the skin at certain points on the body. The needles are tiny, so it is not painful.

    Acupuncture is generally safe and side effects or complications are rare. You should not have acupuncture if you are having cancer treatments that could lower your blood counts, such as chemotherapy. If you have lymphoedema, or are at risk of it, do not have acupuncture in the affected area.

    Some specialist NHS pain and palliative care teams offer acupuncture. Your GP or cancer specialist can refer you. You may have to pay for this.

  • Massage therapy

    Massage therapy uses gentle pressure to your body to help you relax and improve your mood. Some people find it reduces pain.

    There are different types of massage therapy. Cancer doctors and complementary therapists will usually advise you to try gentle massage and avoid vigorous, deep-tissue massage. Your therapist will be able to adjust the pressure for your comfort.

    Some people worry that massage could cause cancer cells to spread to other parts of their body. Research has not found any evidence of this. But massage therapists will avoid any areas affected by cancer. Talk to your cancer doctor or nurse if you are worried.

    Massage therapists working with people with cancer must be properly trained and qualified. They should have some knowledge of cancer and its treatments. They can sometimes teach relatives or friends how to do basic massage techniques, so they can support you at home.

  • Meditation

    There are different types of meditation but they all aim to relax and calm your mind. Some hospitals or hospices may have people who can help you meditate. Ask your doctor, specialist nurse or palliative care team.

    To meditate, sit quietly and focus on your breathing without trying to control it. If you have a thought, try to let it go and only concentrate on your breathing. If you prefer, you can put an object in front of you and focus on that instead. For example, this could be a lighted candle or a picture.

    If you are having treatment for any mental health problems, check with your doctor before doing meditation.

  • Mindfulness meditation

    Mindfulness meditation is a particular type of meditation. The aim is to help people manage problems such as anxiety, stress or chronic pain. Types of mindfulness include:

    • Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)
    • Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT).

    Mindfulness classes may be available through your hospital, your GP or a cancer support charity.

    Apps and CDs can help you meditate at home. Some people find it helpful to meditate in a group until they are familiar with the technique.

  • Relaxation

    Learning to relax may also help control pain, even if you can only do this for a short time each day. Ask your doctor if there is a healthcare professional who can help you. This might be an occupational therapist, physiotherapist or psychologist. A technique called progressive muscle relaxation involves learning to tense and relax groups of muscles, individually or together.

    You can also do relaxation exercises to relax your mind. This can be helpful if anxiety is making your pain worse. There are lots of relaxation CDs or apps available to guide you.

    To practice relaxation, find a quiet, warm and dimly lit space. Make sure you will not be disturbed. Lie or sit in a well-supported position. Relaxation techniques are most helpful if you practise them for 5 to 15 minutes each day.

    You may want to try different things until you find the relaxation exercise that works best for you.

How to manage cancer pain at home

Sometimes simple things can help to improve cancer pain and make you feel better. These are things you or other people can do to help you feel more comfortable.

  • A comfortable position

    The way you sit or lie down can affect your pain, so try to find a comfortable position. If you have difficulty moving, ask someone else to help you. What may be comfortable at first may be uncomfortable 15 or 20 minutes later, so you may need to change your position often. Changing position will also reduce the risk of your skin becoming sore.

    Other things that may help are:

    • v-shaped pillows or supports that help reduce backache and neck pain
    • a bed cradle to keep the weight of blankets off your limbs
    • a special mattress and cushion
    • equipment to help with moving around and sitting.

    Your district nurse can tell you more and advise how you can get these.

  • Use heat pads or ice packs

    Having a warm bath can help relieve aches and pains. Or you could try applying a heat pad to the painful area. Heat may help relax muscles and reduce joint stiffness.

    Ice packs can help relieve pain where there is inflammation and swelling. Some people find that switching between heat and cold helps.

    Be careful to protect your skin from burns. Cover heat pads and ice packs before you put them near the skin. Do not use heat on areas where you have inflammation or swelling.

  • Distraction

    You may find it helps to do something that could take distract you from pain. You could try:

    • watching TV
    • reading
    • playing computer games or doing puzzles
    • listening to music
    • talking to family or friends, and having visitors for a short time
    • taking short walks with someone.
  • Gentle exercise

    Some types of gentle exercise, such as walking, may help some people to manage pain. Exercise can help relieve stress, distract you and give you more energy.

    If you have sore joints, exercise can help ease pain by building muscle strength and improving flexibility. Exercises such as swimming and cycling can be a good choice as they put less strain on your joints. Read more information about exercise and cancer.

About our information

  • Reviewers

    This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert medical professionals and people living with cancer. It has been approved by our Senior Medical Editor, Dr Ollie Minton, Macmillan Consultant in Palliative Medicine.

    Our cancer information has been awarded the PIF TICK. Created by the Patient Information Forum, this quality mark shows we meet PIF’s 10 criteria for trustworthy health information.

Date reviewed

Reviewed: 01 August 2022
Next review: 01 August 2025
Trusted Information Creator - Patient Information Forum
Trusted Information Creator - Patient Information Forum

Our cancer information meets the PIF TICK quality mark.

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