Additional Ways to Manage Pain

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 07/2016

Medication often plays an important role in relieving pain related to cancer and its treatment. But there are several medication-free self-care and support options. This article provides a list of these methods. Or, learn about treating cancer pain with medication.

Self-care and support methods

Below are methods that have helped many people with cancer better manage their pain. These methods may also help reduce stress, depression, and anxiety to help you cope with cancer.

Some of these methods you can do on your own. Others require you to work with a licensed or certified specialist. Talk with your doctor before trying methods other than those recommended by your health care team:

  • Acupuncture. This ancient form of Chinese medicine involves inserting special needles into specific areas of the body. Some clinical trials have shown that it relieves pain. Make sure to see an experienced and reputable practitioner who only uses sterile needles.

  • Biofeedback. This technique helps you control your body’s functions, such as your heart rate. In this method, painless sensors placed on your skin gather information about your body’s processes. A trained biofeedback therapist uses this information to help you focus on making small changes or adjustments to your body to get the results you want. These changes may include relaxing specific muscles to reduce pain.

  • Breathing exercises/meditation. Gentle breathing exercises can enhance relaxation, reduce tension, and decrease pain. You can do them while sitting up in a chair and relaxing your arms gently at your side. Or you can do them while lying down in a reclining chair or bed. Try breathing in through your nose while you slowly count to 3 in your head. Then breathe out through your mouth, once again counting silently to 3. Continue for 5 minutes, gradually working up to 20 minutes. You can also try meditation exercises. Meditation exercises include softly repeating a calming word. Or they may involve imagining breathing heat, coolness, or a feeling of relaxation in and out of painful areas.

  • Counseling and support groups. Talk with a trained counselor or attend cancer support groups to learn about pain management techniques that have worked for others. Discussing concerns and getting support may also relieve some of the physical and emotional tension that often makes pain worse.

  • Distraction.Certain activities can distract your mind from pain. These include:

    • Taking a warm bath

    • Reading a book

    • Watching television or a movie

    • Drawing

    • Doing needlework

    • Listening to music

    • Taking a short walk outdoors

  • Heat and cold.Try applying hot or cold compresses, heating pads, or ice packs to aching, sore, or painful areas of the body to help decrease discomfort. Discuss this approach with your doctor and follow any special instructions, particularly during or after radiation therapy or chemotherapy. Start with short applications of 5to 10 minutes at moderate temperatures. Do not apply heat or cold directly to:

    • Bare or injured skin

    • Areas that are numb

    • Areas that have received recent radiation therapy

    Wrap ice packs and compresses in a towel to protect the skin. And use heating pads over clothing, a sheet, or a towel. Experiment with temperatures to find a method that provides relief comfortably.

  • Imagery and visualization. Many imagery techniques are useful for pain and discomfort associated with treatment. For example, with the "magic glove" technique, you imagine putting on a glove before getting a needle stick. Then you visualize that the glove protects your hand from the feeling of pain. Or you may benefit from imagining a peaceful scene, replaying a favorite memory, or creating a mental picture of healing light taking the pain away. A trained therapist can teach you different exercises to do at home.

  • Massage. A qualified massage therapist who has experience working with people with cancer can provide gentle therapeutic massage. This may help alleviate tension, discomfort, and pain. A caregiver can do simple massage techniques at home, including gentle, smooth, circular rubbing of the feet, hands, or back. You can also massage yourself by applying light, even pressure to your hands, arms, neck, and forehead.

  • Nutritional support. Cancer and cancer treatments sometimes cause mouth sores or nausea. These side effects make it difficult to maintain proper nutrition. Not getting enough vitamins, minerals, and other important nutrients from food can cause pain or discomfort or worsen these sensations. A food and nutrition professional (a dietitian) or your doctor may recommend you take certain supplements or change your diet to address those side effects.

  • Physical therapy or occupational therapy. A physical therapist evaluates nerve, muscle, and fitness problems that make it difficult for a person to function well on a daily basis.

He or she can teach you how to relieve pain using simple exercises or devices, such as artificial body parts, splints, or braces. An occupational therapist helps people prevent and live with illness, injury, and disability. For example, an occupational therapist may help someone avoid lymphedema after cancer surgery. Lymphedema is a painful buildup of fluid caused when lymph nodes are removed. You may also want to consider seeing certified lymphedema therapist (CLT). A CLT is a health professional who specializes in managing lymphedema.

Tracking pain reduction

Track the results of your pain management techniques to determine which ones work best for you. You can do this by creating a simple chart and listing the days of the week across the top. Down the left-hand side, create categories such as time of day, pain management techniques, activity level, and mood. You may want to include a pain rating category. This is when you rate the pain on a scale from 0 to 10. In this scale, 10 is the highest level of pain. 

By entering these details regularly and reviewing the chart, you will be able to see which situations and techniques help your pain the most. You can find a premade chart by searching the Internet for “pain management chart” or “pain tracking chart.”

More Information

Pain: Causes and Diagnosis

ASCO Answers: Managing Pain

About Complementary and Alternative Therapies

Evaluating Complementary and Alternative Therapies