- Cancer Information
- Managing side effects
- Pain and cancer
- Using pain medicines
- Making the most of your medicines
Making the most of your medicines
Here we look at how to effectively use your medicine.
Learn more about:
- Give your medicines time to work
- Take your medicines regularly
- The different ways to manage pain
- Keep track of medicines
- Discuss pain medicines with family and friends
Different pain medicines take different amounts of time to work. How long each one takes depends on whether the ingredient that makes the medicine work, known as the active ingredient, is released slowly or immediately.
Slow release medicines
- Also known as sustained release medicines.
- Release the active ingredient continuously to provide pain control over a longer period of time, often for 12–24 hours.
- Slow release medicines are used for constant pain and need to be taken as prescribed. This helps keep the amount of medicine in the blood high enough to work well.
Immediate release medicines
- These release the active ingredient fast, usually in less than 30 minutes.
- Immediate release medicines are used for occasional, temporary pain (breakthrough pain) because they work quickly but for a short period of time, often for 4–6 hours.
How quickly different medicines relieve pain also varies greatly from person to person. It depends on how much medicine you take (the dose) and how often you take it (the frequency).
Pain medicines need to be taken as prescribed to control pain. This helps maintain a steady level of medicine in the body. Some people call this “staying on top of the pain”.
By taking your pain medicine regularly, even if you are not in pain, your pain may come back as mild rather than strong pain. It is important to use the correct pain medicine at the right time for it to work.
To manage your pain, your health care team may recommend a combination of prescription and non-prescription medicines. You may also consider trying complementary therapies.
These are medicines that your doctor must authorise you to take and only a pharmacist can give you (dispense). Most prescription medicines have two names:
- generic name – this identifies the chemical compounds in the drug that make it work;
- brand name – this is created by the pharmaceutical company that made the medicine; may have more than one brand name if it’s produced by different companies.
The generic name will be on the prescription, but the brand name may appear on the box. This is a list of some generic and brand names of strong opioids.
These are available without a prescription, and can be bought from pharmacies and supermarkets. They include over-the-counter medicines such as mild pain medicines and cold medicines. Vitamin supplements and herbal remedies are also considered non-prescription medicines.
Allied health services
These offer therapies, such as physiotherapy, exercises, special equipment and psychological therapies, to help people manage their pain and stay comfortable.
These are therapies that can be used alongside conventional medical treatments to improve your quality of life and wellbeing.
There are different ways to remember all the medicines you are taking and help ensure you take the correct dose of medicine at the right time. You can share this information with the people involved in your care.
You can ask your pharmacist to organise your tablets and capsules into a blister pack (e.g. Webster-pak), which sets out all the doses that need to be taken throughout the week, along with a description of each drug.
This keeps all the information about your medicines together. You can record what you need to take, what each medicine is for, when to take it, and how much to take. You can:
- create your own list on paper or online
- order a printed list to keep in your wallet or handbag at NPS MedicineWise
- download the MedicineWise app from the App Store or Google Play onto your smartphone. You can scan the barcode on packaging to add a medicine to the app and set up alarms for taking the medicine.
Family members, carers and friends sometimes have opinions about the pain relief you’re having. Your family members may feel anxious about you using pain medicines such as opioids. This may be because they are worried that you will become addicted.
Let your family know how pain affects what you can do and how you feel, and that keeping the pain under control allows you to remain comfortable and enjoy your time with them. You may want to ask your health care team if they can explain to your family and carers why a particular medicine has been recommended for you.
Podcast: Managing Cancer Pain
Dr Tim Hucker, Pain Medicine Specialist, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Dr Keiron Bradley, Palliative Care Consultant, Bethesda Health Care, WA; A/Prof Anne Burke, Co-Director Psychology, Central Adelaide Local Health Network, President, Australian Pain Society, Statewide Chronic Pain Clinical Network, SA, School of Psychology, The University of Adelaide, SA; Tumelo Dube, Accredited Pain Physiotherapist, Michael J Cousins Pain Management and Research Centre, Royal North Shore Hospital, NSW; Prof Paul Glare, Chair in Pain Medicine, Palliative Medicine Specialist, Pain Management Research Institute, The University of Sydney, NSW; Andrew Greig, Consumer; Annette Lindley, Consumer; Prof Melanie Lovell, Palliative Care Specialist HammondCare, Sydney Medical School and The University of Technology Sydney, NSW; Caitriona Nienaber, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council WA; Melanie Proper, Pain Management Specialist Nurse Practitioner, Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital, QLD; Dr Alison White, Palliative Medicine Specialist and Director of Hospice and Palliative Care Services, St John of God Health Care, WA.
View the Cancer Council NSW editorial policy.