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Educating Patients Can Lessen Cancer Pain

WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD

May 23, 2001 -- It is no secret that many cancer patients experience pain -- and quite often, a lot of it. But far from being an intractable reality, a new study shows that a 20-minute education session can help these patients achieve better pain control.

"What we were trying to do is find a way to help patients get better pain control -- but focused on the patients themselves," study researcher Jennifer Wright Oliver, MD, tells WebMD.

"Other cancer pain interventions have focused on educating physicians or nurses or [making changes in] the whole healthcare system. But there hadn't been much research about patients and their role in their own pain control," says Oliver, who is associate director of medical affairs at BioQ Inc., a medical software company. "Our results showed that by educating patients and giving them a personalized tutorial about [pain control], they could reduce their average pain."

"It has been estimated that a majority of cancer patients -- maybe up to 90% -- experience pain at some point in their illness. Even in the early stages of the disease, pain can be a problem, and in fact, many cancer survivors have residual pain problems as a result of their treatment," Karen Anderson, PhD, tells WebMD.

"As the article points out, over 40% of those patients typically don't receive adequate pain treatment," says Anderson, assistant professor in the Pain Research Group at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, who reviewed the study for WebMD. "There seem to be a lot of barriers. Some of them are related to the healthcare system and legal system: Unfortunately there are regulations that tend to discourage physicians from dispensing opioid medications. And even when physicians are willing to prescribe them, oftentimes they don't get much education on pain management in medical school.

"So there are barriers on that end," she continues. "And then on the patient end, a lot of time patients have unrealistic fears about addiction and developing tolerance. ... Education can be very helpful to empower the patient, so that if [they] do experience pain they know help is available and they do not have to suffer."

Some of the common misconceptions people have about pain medication is that it is addictive, that it doesn't work well, that they will be viewed as a bad or whiny patient, that it has uncontrollable side effects, and that focusing on pain will distract the physician from treating the cancer, Oliver says. And also, many patients simply don't know how to take pain medication properly.

"A lot of people ... wait until the pain gets bad, then it takes a long time for the medication to take effect," says Oliver. "Really, to get the best pain control, you need to take it around the clock."

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