Other Ways to Manage Pain

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 06/2018

Medication often plays an important role in relieving pain caused by cancer and its treatment. But there are also several medication-free ways to help manage this pain. It involves using the self-care and support tools discussed in this article.

Self-care and support methods

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

Some of these practices you can do on your own. Others require you to work with a licensed or certified specialist. Talk with your health care team before trying these methods.

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

  • Biofeedback. This technique helps you control your body’s functions, such as your heart rate. Painless sensors are placed on your skin to gather information about your body’s processes. A trained therapist then uses this to help you focus on making small changes to your body. These changes may include relaxing certain muscles to reduce pain.

  • Breathing exercises and meditation. Gentle breathing exercises can decrease pain. They can also help you relax and reduce tension. You can do them while sitting in a chair and relaxing your arms at your side. Or you can do them while reclining in a chair or lying down on a 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, slowly working up to 20 minutes. You can also meditate. Meditation exercises may involve silently repeating a calming word. Or, you might imagine breathing heat, coolness, or a feeling of relaxation into the painful areas.

  • Counseling and support groups. Talk with a trained counselor or attend cancer support groups. This will help you to learn about pain management techniques that have worked for others. Getting this support may also relieve some 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 TV or a movie

    • Drawing

    • Doing needlework

    • Listening to music

    • Taking a short walk outdoors

  • Heat and cold. Apply hot or cold compresses, heating pads, or ice packs to aching, sore, or painful areas of the body. This will help to decrease discomfort. Wrap ice packs and compresses in a towel to protect the skin. And use heating pads over clothing, a sheet, or a towel. Try different temperatures to find a method that provides relief.Talk with your health care team about this approach. Follow any special instructions, particularly during or after radiation therapy or chemotherapy. Start by applying heat or cold for 5 to 10 minutes at moderate temperatures. Do not apply heat or cold directly to:

    • Bare or injured skin

    • Areas that are numb

    • Areas that have had recent radiation therapy

  • Imagery and visualization. Many imagery techniques are useful for pain and discomfort from 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 or replaying a favorite memory. Another tool is to create a mental picture of a healing light taking the pain away. A trained therapist can teach you different exercises to do at home.

  • Massage. A massage therapist who has experience working with people with cancer can provide gentle therapeutic massage. This may help ease tension, discomfort, and pain. A caregiver can do simple massage techniques at home. This may include 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 its treatments sometimes cause mouth sores or nausea. These side effects make it hard to maintain proper nutrition. Not getting enough important nutrients from food can cause pain or discomfort. It can even worsen these side effects. A dietitian or your doctor may suggest you take supplements or change your diet to reduce these side effects.

  • Physical therapy or occupational therapy. A physical therapist treats 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. This includes 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 see a 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 find out which ones work best for you. You can do this by creating a simple chart. List 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, with 10 being the highest level of pain.

Enter these details regularly. By doing this, 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.” Or you can use the chart in the ASCO Answers Managing Cancer-Related Pain booklet (PDF).

Related Resources

Pain: Causes and Diagnosis

Treating Pain with Medication

About Complementary and Alternative Therapies

Evaluating Complementary and Alternative Therapies

ASCO Answers: Managing PainDownload ASCO's free Managing Pain Fact Sheet. This 1-page (front and back) PDF offers an introduction to managing pain, including an overview of the possible causes of pain, the different types of pain, words to know, and questions to ask the healthcare team. Order printed copies of this fact sheet from the ASCO Store.