Guide to Controlling Cancer Pain

+ -Text Size



Relaxation helps relieve pain and/or keep it from getting worse by reducing muscle tension. It can help you fall asleep, give you more energy, make you less tired, reduce your anxiety, and help other pain-relief methods work better.

How to use relaxation

Relaxation may be done sitting up or lying down. Choose a quiet place whenever possible. Close your eyes. Do not cross your arms and legs because that may cut off circulation and cause numbness or tingling. If you’re lying down, be sure you are comfortable. Put a small pillow under your neck and under your knees or use a low stool to support your lower legs.

You can also ask your cancer care team to recommend relaxation CDs for you. These recordings provide step-by-step instructions in relaxation techniques.

There are many relaxation methods. Here are some for you to try:

Visual concentration and rhythmic massage:

  • Open your eyes and stare at an object, or close your eyes and think of a peaceful, calm scene.
  • With the palm of your hand, firmly massage near the area of pain in a circular movement. Avoid red, raw, or swollen areas. A family member or friend can do this for you.

Inhale/tense, exhale/relax:

  • Breathe in deeply. At the same time, tense your muscles or a group of muscles. For example, you can squeeze your eyes shut, frown, clench your teeth, make a fist, stiffen your arms and legs, or draw up your arms and legs as tightly as you can.
  • Hold your breath and keep your muscles tense for a second or two.
  • Let go. Breathe out and let your body go limp.

Slow, rhythmic breathing:

  • Stare at an object or close your eyes and focus on your breathing or on a peaceful scene.
  • Take a slow, deep breath and, as you breathe in, tense your muscles (such as your arms).
  • As you breathe out, relax your muscles and feel the tension draining.
  • Now stay relaxed and begin breathing slowly and comfortably. Focus on your breathing, taking about 9 to 12 breaths a minute. Breathing too fast or too deeply can cause dizziness or other symptoms.
  • To keep a slow, even rhythm as you breathe out, you can say silently to yourself, “In, 1, 2; out, 1, 2.” It may be helpful at first if someone counts out loud for you. If you ever feel out of breath, take a deep breath and then continue the slow breathing. Each time you breathe out, feel yourself relaxing and going limp. If some muscles, such as your shoulder muscles, aren’t relaxed, tense them as you breathe in and relax them as you breathe out. Do this only once or twice for each muscle group.
  • Continue slow, rhythmic breathing for a few seconds up to 10 minutes, depending on your need.
  • To end your slow, rhythmic breathing, count silently and slowly from 1 to 3. Open your eyes. Say silently to yourself, “I feel alert and relaxed.” Begin moving about slowly.


Some people who have used relaxation for pain relief have noticed some common problems and have made these suggestions:

  • Relaxation may be hard to use when you have severe pain. Try quick and easy relaxation methods such as rhythmic massage or breathe in/tense, breathe out/relax. Or you can wait until your pain medicine starts working before you start with the relaxation methods.
  • Sometimes breathing too deeply for a while can make you feel short of breath. If this happens, take shallow breaths and/or breathe more slowly.
  • You may fall asleep. This can be a good thing if you’re ready to go to bed. If you don’t want to fall asleep, sit in a hard chair while doing the relaxation exercise or set a timer or alarm.

If you have trouble using these methods, ask your cancer care team to refer you to someone experienced in relaxation techniques. Do not keep using any technique that increases your pain, makes you feel uneasy, or causes unpleasant effects.

Last Medical Review: 07/15/2015
Last Revised: 07/15/2015