7 Tips for Managing Breakthrough Cancer Pain


What is breakthrough pain?

Breakthrough pain is a flare-up of pain or pain that “breaks through” the use of a long-acting or regular dosage of pain medication. It comes on suddenly and can last up to an hour. Breakthrough pain can occur as a result of cancer treatment, stress, physical activity, or tolerance to a pain medication. It can also occur without any obvious cause. Breakthrough pain is a common occurrence for many individuals with cancer, even those who regularly take medication for chronic pain.

Seven tips for managing breakthrough cancer pain

  1. Consider a “rescue medication.” A rescue medication is a fast-acting pain reliever that lasts for a shorter amount of time than other medications for chronic pain. One commonly prescribed rescue medication is the opioid fentanyl. This medication comes in several forms: a lollipop that allows the medication to be absorbed through the lining of the mouth, a tablet that dissolves under the tongue, or a nasal spray. A rescue medication should be taken at the onset of breakthrough pain rather than waiting until it becomes severe. It is important to note that any medication should only be taken as prescribed and under the direction of a health care professional.
  2. Talk to your doctor. Breakthrough pain can be a sign that the current dosage of pain medication needs to be adjusted or changed to a different medication. It can also indicate that another aspect of cancer treatment needs to be changed. Talking to a doctor can help identify the cause and a solution.
  3. Use temperature therapy. Applying heat to a painful area or taking a warm bath may help relieve pain. Alternatively, cold compresses or ice packs may also help.
  4. Try distraction techniques. Focusing on an activity can help reduce the sensation of breakthrough pain or help an individual manage the sensation until the pain stabilizes. Activities that require a significant amount of mental concentration work well.
  5. Breathe through it. Breathing techniques can help with intense, short-term pain. Specific breathing techniques such as pursed-lip breathing, diaphragmatic breathing, ocean breathing, or boxed breathing can be helpful.
  6. Practice relaxation techniques. Relaxation techniques, such as progressive muscle relaxation, can help calm the body and mind, which may help reduce pain. Meditation is a relaxation technique that also provides distraction from pain.
  7. Try massage. Massage relaxes the body and reduces muscle tension, which can contribute to breakthrough pain. It can be used regularly to help prevent breakthrough pain or used as needed to help lower pain levels.

Using these tips can help manage or prevent breakthrough cancer pain, which can improve overall quality of life.

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