Non-medication options for cancer pain

For many people, some types of pain can be relieved without medication or hospital treatment. They may benefit from services offered by allied health professionals or complementary therapists.

Allied health care

There are many types of allied health carers who support the work of doctors and nurses. Practitioners are usually part of your hospital MDT, or your GP can refer you to private practitioners as part of a chronic disease management plan, such as:

  • physiotherapy, which can be an important part of your care so that you learn the best ways to sit and lie to relieve pressure, improve circulation and reduce swelling
  • emotional support through counselling, which can help relieve anxiety and depression that may be contributing to pain
  • a dietitian, who can advise you on dietary changes to relieve pain caused by eating or digestive problems, such as mouth ulcers, bloating or constipation.

Complementary therapies

Complementary therapies may boost your wellbeing and help you to cope better with pain and other side effects caused by cancer and its treatment. These therapies may increase your sense of control, decrease stress and anxiety, and improve your mood.

Imagery is one technique that can be used to distract your mind from pain or worries, or make you feel more in control of what is happening to your body. It involves using your imagination to think of shapes, colours, sounds – anything that helps you feel like you are in a particular place.

Some therapies, such as hypnotherapy, require you to have a consultation with a professional therapist. For others, such as imagery, you can use CDs or DVDs at home, but it may be useful to seek some guidance to learn these techniques safely. Friends or family may also be able to help you – for example, by giving you a gentle massage or doing relaxation with you.

Let your doctor know about any complementary therapies you are using or thinking about trying. This is important, as some therapies may not be appropriate depending on your conventional treatment and the pain medications you are taking. You should also tell the complementary therapist about any pain, as some therapies, such as massage and exercise, may need to be modified to accommodate the changes in your body.

Some complementary therapies that may reduce pain

  • relaxation – relieves pain or keeps it from getting worse by reducing tension in the muscles. It can help you fall asleep, give you more energy, reduce your anxiety, and make other pain-relief methods – such as medication or a cold pack – work more effectively.
  • meditation – focuses on breathing techniques and quietening the mind. Mindful meditation encourages people to become more aware of their body, thoughts and surroundings. Visualisation draws on your imagination to produce pleasant thoughts to take the mind off the pain and give a more hopeful outlook.
  • massage – a relaxing therapy that may increase your sense of wellbeing. It helps relieve muscle spasms and contractions, and joint stiffness. Aromatherapy is a type of massage using aromatic oils that are soothing and calming. This can be helpful if you are in pain.
  • art therapy, music therapy and journal writing – these help people emotionally by allowing them to express their feelings in different ways. The techniques also provide some distraction from the pain. You can be creative at home, or some hospitals and support groups offer professionally run programs.
  • TENS – a mild electric current is applied to the skin. This produces a pleasant sensation and relieves some pain. Many physiotherapists offer this treatment.
This information was last reviewed in November 2013

This information has been reviewed by: Dr Melanie Lovell, Consultant Palliative Care Physician, Senior Lecturer, Sydney Medical School, University of Sydney, NSW; Prof Frances Boyle AM, Professor of Medical Oncology, Mater Hospital and University of Sydney, NSW; Prof Michael J Cousins AM, Professor & Head, Pain Management & Research Centre, Royal North Shore Hospital, NSW; Carol Kanowski, Clinical Nurse Consultant, North Queensland Persistent Pain Management Service, QLD; Brenda Kirkwood, Helpline Operator, Cancer Council QLD; A/Prof Odette Spruyt, Director, Pain and Palliative Care, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; and Sally White, Consumer.

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