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Side Effects

Treatments to Stop or Decrease Pain Signals

If your cancer pain isn’t being relieved by medicines or non-medical methods, other types of treatments may be an option.

Nerve blocks

A nerve block is an injection of a local anesthetic (a numbing drug) into or around a nerve or into the space around the spinal cord to block pain. After the block, the nerve cannot send pain signals and the pain is relieved for a short period of time. Nerve blocks can be given as a one-time injection or through a pump.

Types of nerve blocks

  • Intrathecal injections: Low doses of pain medicine may be injected into the fluid around the spine. If this works, a tube and a pump may be used to deliver the pain medicine right into the spinal fluid to control the pain.
  • Epidural: Medicine is injected into the space around the layers of the spine to control pain. You will need surgery to put the small pump and tube into your body. This may cause numbness or weakness of the treated area for a short period of time.
  • Celiac plexus block: An injection guided by an ultrasound to provide short-term or long-term relief of pain in the abdomen (belly area) for a short period of time.

Neuroablation

Neuroablation uses radio waves to destroy (ablate) nerves. This decreases the pain signals from that specific area to the brain. It can last months to years.

Nerve stimulation

There are different types of nerve stimulation therapies for treating certain types of cancer-related pain. Studies are being done to figure out the best ways to use nerve stimulation for cancer pain.

Types of nerve stimulation

  • Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS): Low-voltage electric current from a small, battery-powered machine is applied to the skin over the pain area. 
  • Spinal cord stimulation: Uses a device to send mild electric currents to block nerves in the spine.
  • Peripheral nerve stimulation: Uses small electrodes to send mild electric currents to nerves outside the brain and spinal cord.

Surgery

In some cases, the nerves that send pain signals to our brain are cut. But this also blocks other sensations including temperature and pressure. This surgery is usually only done when there are no other options left.

Treatments to shrink the tumor

Sometimes, even when treatment can’t cure the cancer, it can shrink the size of a tumor that’s pressing on nerves and organs and causing pain. This type of treatment is called palliative care. Cancer treatments like chemo, hormone therapy, radiofrequency ablation or radiation may be used in this way.

Radioactive injections are sometimes used when the cancer has spread to many places in the bone. The radioactive medicine settles in the bones near the cancer to help stop its growth and relieve pain.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as editors and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

National Cancer Institute (NCI). Cancer Pain (PDQ®) – Patient Version. 2023. Accessed at https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/side-effects/pain/pain-pdq

National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN). Adult Cancer Pain. Version 1.2023. Accessed at www.nccn.org on April 3, 2023.

National Cancer Care Center Network (NCCN). Adult Cancer Pain. Version 2.2023. Accessed November 16, 2023. https://www.nccn.org/professionals/physician_gls/pdf/pain.pdf.

Wiersema MJ, Saumoy M. Endoscopic ultrasound-guided celiac plexus interventions for pain related to pancreatic disease. In: Post T, ed. Uptodate. UpToDate; 2023. Accessed December 8, 2023.

Last Revised: March 29, 2024

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