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Coliseum Medical Centers
Coliseum Northside Hospital

Cancer Pain Syndromes


About one-third of people with cancer have pain. There are different types of cancer pain affected by:

  • Progression of the disease
  • Location in the body
  • Overall physical condition


Based on the cause of pain, researchers have defined different cancer pain syndromes, including:

  • Pain from the tumor—Tumors can press on bone, nerves, or an organ, resulting in pain.
  • Pain related to cancer therapy—This may include pain from:
  • Pain unrelated to the cancer or treatment—This refers to pain in people with cancer that has nothing to do with the illness or its treatment. It may include:
Chemotherapy Affects the Whole Body
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Risk Factors

Having cancer is the main risk factor for cancer pain.


Any type of pain experienced by someone with cancer can be considered cancer pain. The pain may be near or far from the location of the tumor. The intensity can vary. It may be chronic or off and on. The pain can be described as pressure, sharp, dull, throbbing, burning, stabbing, and achy.


Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. Special tests may also be done to determine possible causes of the pain.

Imaging tests evaluate bodily structures to find the source of pain, such as bone fractures and lesions. These may include:

Your doctor may need to evaluate you for nerve disorders. This can be done with:


Talk with your doctor about the best plan for you. Your plan will depend on the type of pain you are having. It will also depend on how your cancer has been treated. Medications to treat cancer pain include:


To treat mild to moderate cancer pain:

  • Acetaminophen
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)


Weak or strong opioids are often used to treat moderate to severe cancer pain.

Other Medications

Antidepressants, anti-epileptics, and steroids may be effective in relieving certain types of cancer pain. These types of medication may be of benefit if the pain is thought to be related to the central nervous system. This type of pain may be called either neuopathic or central.

Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy can be used to relieve bone pain. It can also help relieve pain caused by tumors compressing other structures.

Alternative Treatments

Acupuncture may be helpful in reducing cancer-related pain. Talk to your doctor to see if this is a good option for you.


Cancer pain usually cannot be prevented, but it can be managed.

Revision Information

  • American Cancer Society

  • National Cancer Institute

  • Canadian Cancer Society

  • Health Canada

  • Cancer pain. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: Updated December 27, 2012. Accessed January 23, 2013.

  • Pain control: support for people with cancer. National Cancer Institute website. Available at: Accessed January 23, 2013.

  • VT Chang, et al. Update in cancer pain syndromes. J Palliat Med. 2006;9(6):1414-1434.

  • 2/11/2011 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance Paley C, Johnson M, et al. Acupuncture for cancer pain in adults. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2011;(1):CD007753.