Guide to Controlling Cancer Pain

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Types of pain

The type of pain you have affects the treatment you will need. Pain may be acute or chronic:

    Acute pain is severe and lasts a fairly short time. It’s most often a sign that the body is being injured in some way. This pain generally goes away as the injury heals.

    Chronic or persistent pain lasts for long periods of time. It may range from mild to severe. You’ll notice that here we talk mostly about chronic pain, because it can disrupt your life if it’s not well treated.

There’s a third type of pain that’s very important in managing chronic cancer pain. Some people with chronic pain that’s mostly controlled by medicine can have breakthrough pain. This is when moderate to severe pain “breaks through” the medicine that’s giving pain relief and is felt for a short time.

Breakthrough pain

People with cancer pain often notice that their pain changes throughout the day. Many people with chronic cancer pain (pain that lasts longer than 3 months) have 2 types of pain – persistent or chronic pain and breakthrough pain. Chronic pain doesn’t go away, but it can usually be controlled by taking pain medicines on a regular schedule. Breakthrough pain is pain that’s not controlled by the regular doses of pain medicines.

Breakthrough pain is a flare of pain that happens even though you’re taking pain medicine regularly for chronic pain. It’s called breakthrough pain because it “breaks through” the pain relief you get from the regular pain medicine.

Breakthrough pain may be different for each person, and the person usually can’t tell when it will happen. As a rule, it comes on quickly, lasts as long as an hour, and feels much like chronic pain except that it’s more severe or intense. It may happen many times a day, even when the chronic pain is controlled by the regular pain medicine.

Breakthrough pain is shown in the picture above as spikes through the relief provided by the around-the-clock analgesic (pain medicine taken regularly to treat chronic pain). Breakthrough pain varies in intensity and usually can’t be predicted.

Breakthrough pain often has the same cause as chronic pain. It may be the cancer itself, or it may be related to cancer treatment. Some people have breakthrough pain during a certain activity, like walking or dressing. For others, it happens unexpectedly without any clear cause.


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