What Types of Pain Can be Caused by Cancer?

Cancer pain occurs in a variety of ways, and can range from dull, mild, achy and intermittent to moderate, sharp, severe and constant.

The type of cancer pain you feel depends on the particular type of cancer you have and how it affects your body. For example:

  • Deep, aching pain. Bone pain is the most common type of cancer pain. A tumor that presses on your bones or grows into your bones can cause deep, aching pain.
  • Burning pain. Nerve pain is the second most common type of cancer pain,and a tumor that presses on a nerve can cause a burning sensation. Chemotherapy, radiation, or surgery can sometimes damage nerves and cause burning pain.
  • Phantom pain. Pain that is felt in the area where an arm or a breast has been removed is phantom pain. Although the body part is gone, nerve endings at the site still send pain signals to the brain. The brain thinks the body part is still there.
  • Acute vs. chronic. Acute pain is sharp pain that lasts for a short period of time. Chronic pain is pain that comes and goes for a long period of time, and has been known to be a side effect of cancer or treatment. Chronic pain can range from mild to severe.
  • Breakthrough pain. Strong pain that occurs while you are taking medicines that usually control your pain. This kind of pain usually begins suddenly and lasts for a short period of time.

People feel pain in different ways, and only you can describe how much pain you have. The key to getting your pain under control is being able to tell your doctor what it feels like, and what does and doesn’t work for you.

What Causes Cancer Pain?

Cancer typically causes pain by growing into or destroying tissue near the cancer. Cancer pain can originate from the area where the cancer started, or from other areas in the body where the cancer has spread (metastases). As a tumor grows, it can cause pain by putting pressure on nerves, bones or organs.

Cancer pain may not just be attributed to the physical effect of the cancer on a region of the body, but may also be due to chemicals that the cancer releases in the region of the tumor. Treatment of the cancer can help the pain in these situations.

Another potential source of cancer pain are cancer treatments such as chemotherapy, radiation and surgery. Chemotherapy can cause many potentially painful side effects, including mouth sores, diarrhea and nerve damage. Radiation may leave behind a burning sensation or painful scars. Surgery can be painful, and it may take time to recover.

How is Cancer Pain Treated?

There are a number of different ways to treat cancer pain. For example, one way is to remove the source of the pain through surgery, chemotherapy, radiation or some other form of treatment. If that cannot be done, pain medications can usually control the pain. These medications include:

  • Over-the-counter and prescription-strength pain relievers, such as aspirin, acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) and ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, others)
  • Weak opioid (derived from opium) medications, such as codeine
  • Strong opioid medications, such as morphine (Avinza, Ms Contin, others), oxycodone (Oxycontin, Roxicodone, others), hydromorphone (Dilaudid, Exalgo), fentanyl (Actiq, Fentora, others), methadone (Dolophine, Methadose) or oxymorphone (Opana)

These drugs can often be taken orally, and are therefore easy to use. Medications may come in tablet form, or they may be made to dissolve quickly in your mouth. However, if you are unable to take medications orally, they may also be taken intravenously, rectally or through the skin using a patch.

Specialized treatment, such as nerve blocks, also may be used. Nerve blocks are a local anesthetic that is injected around or into a nerve, which prevents pain messages traveling along that nerve pathway from reaching the brain.

Other therapies such as acupuncture, acupressure, massage, physical therapy, relaxation, meditation and humor may help.