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Cancer Health Center

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Oral Complications of Chemotherapy and Head/Neck Radiation (PDQ®): Supportive care - Health Professional Information [NCI] - Orofacial Pain in Cancer Patients

Pain in cancer patients may arise from onset of the disease through survivorship and may be:[1]

  • Caused by the malignant disease.
  • Caused by acute or chronic complications of cancer therapy.
  • Coincidental and unrelated to the cancer.

Cancer pain causes increased morbidity, reduced performance status, increased anxiety and depression, and diminished quality of life (QOL). Dimensions of acute and chronic pain include the following:

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  • Sensory
  • Physiologic
  • Affective
  • Cognitive
  • Behavioral
  • Sociocultural

Management of head and neck pain and oral pain may be particularly challenging because eating, speech, swallowing, and other motor functions of the head and neck and oropharynx are constant pain triggers.

Orofacial Pain due to Cancer

Acute and chronic pain in cancer can result from several factors, including the following:

  • Pain due to malignant disease:
    • Local/regional cancer.
    • Oral involvement in systemic/hematopoietic cancer.
    • Metastatic disease.
  • Pain due to treatment:
  • Pain unrelated to malignancy.

Pain at diagnosis is often low intensity but typically becomes more frequent and severe with advancing disease. Cancer pain may be caused by local and distant tumor effects. Direct invasion by cancer may cause pain and may result from inflammatory and neuropathic mechanisms. Effective prevention and management of pain in cancer requires knowledge of the factors and mechanisms involved.

It is estimated that 45% to 80% of all cancer patients have inadequate pain management. Seventy-five percent to 90% of patients with terminal or advanced cancer may have pain. Pain may be present in up to 85% of patients with head and neck cancers (HNCs) at diagnosis.

Orofacial pain associated with cancer management is a well-recognized adverse effect of treatment. Pain due to oral mucositis is the most frequently reported patient-related complaint during cancer therapy. Severe and painful mucositis is associated with additional hospital admissions and prolonged periods in hospital, leading to delayed, interrupted, or altered cancer therapy protocols that may affect prognosis, QOL, and cost of care. Graft-versus-host disease (GVHD) is a common complication of allogeneic hematopoietic cell transplant (HCT), occurring in 25% to 70% of patients; oral lesions are often painful.

In addition to HNCs, oral manifestations of leukemia and lymphoma may cause pain and loss of function. Lymphomas and leukemias may induce pain by infiltration of pain-sensitive structures and if secondary oral infection occurs. Multiple myeloma frequently presents with pain and, when associated with teeth, presents a diagnostic challenge. Intracranial malignancies may give rise to orofacial pain and headache. Even in diagnosed cancer patients, the prediction of intracranial metastases with new or changed headache is difficult.

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