What Medicines Help Treat Cancer Pain?

Medically Reviewed by Murtaza Cassoobhoy, MD on May 23, 2023
4 min read

When cancer causes you physical pain, there are many medicines that can help manage it so you feel better. Your doctor will prescribe what you need based on your situation.

Any time you have pain, whether it's caused directly by your cancer or a side effect of treatment, tell your doctor right away. Don't try to tough it out. It's easier to bring pain under control in the early stages. Severe pain may take longer to control and need more medicine.

For most people, these medications help. You may be able to sleep and eat better and keep up with daily activities such as work and hobbies.

These may be enough to control mild to moderate pain. Many are available over the counter. But some need a prescription. They include:

  • Acetaminophen. In normal amounts, this drug is usually safe. But large doses over long periods may lead to liver damage. Taking it with alcohol can also harm the liver. If you've been diagnosed with liver disease, talk with your doctor before taking acetaminophen.
  • NSAIDS (non-steroidal anti-inflammatories) such as aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen. These medicines lower inflammation along with pain. Side effects can include stomach problems and ulcers, especially if you drink alcohol or smoke. NSAIDS use runs a risk for kidney damage, and increase blood pressure. Over the long run, NSAIDs may raise your risk of heart attack or stroke.

Check with your doctor before taking a pain reliever. Discuss other medications and treatments you're on. That's especially important if you have other medical conditions, such as kidney problems. Using NSAIDS may worsen how well your kidneys work if you have kidney disease.

For moderate to severe pain, your doctor may prescribe an opioid. You may take it either on its own or with other kinds of pain relievers.

Opioids can be weak or strong. Examples include::

Common side effects include:

  • Constipation
  • Drowsiness
  • Upset stomach, nausea, and vomiting

If you have any of these symptoms, tell your doctor. You may need to change your medicine or the dosage. Your physician may also prescribe another drug to relieve the side effect, such as an anti-nausea medication.

Doctors can prescribe several different drugs to ease cancer pain. They're often paired with an opioid drug. They may help those medications work better or lessen side effects. These include:

  • Anti-seizure medicines. These can relieve the tingling and burning of nerve pain.
  • Antidepressants. These medicines also treat nerve pain.
  • Steroids: These drugs reduce inflammation. They're used for spinal cord, brain tumors, and bone pain.

In some states, it's legal to prescribe marijuana for cancer pain. Research suggests that marijuana can provide relief. It's been shown to lessen nerve pain.

Marijuana can be smoked, inhaled, or eaten, such as in baked goods. Manmade versions of marijuana compounds are also available by prescription. Dronabinol and nabilone are taken as pills.

These drugs come in several different forms, including:

  • Pill, capsule, or liquid: You take these drugs by mouth. They can also come as lozenges or mouth sprays.
  • Suppositories: Medicine in pills and capsules are placed in the rectum.
  • Shot: The medicine is injected just under the skin or around the spine.
  • Skin patch: These sticky patches slowly releases medicine through the skin.
  • IV: The medicine goes directly to one of your veins. It can be paired with a pump, or patient-controlled analgesia (PCA). That's where you can press a button to get a prescribed dose.

Many people worry that they could become hooked on their pain drugs, especially opioids. The risk of addiction, though, needs to be weighed against the severity of pain and its impact on quality of life. Certain medicines may cause you to feel drowsy at first. But this effect often goes away in a few days.

To take your pain medicine in a safe way, you should:

  1. Tell your doctor if you or anyone in your family has an addiction.
  2. Take your regular doses as prescribed. Don't hold out between doses or wait until the pain becomes severe. The best way to keep pain under control is to treat it early.
  3. Speak with your doctor if your medication isn't working. Over time, you may build up a tolerance and find your usual dose doesn't provide the same kind of relief. You may need a higher dose or different medicine. Don't increase the amount you're taking on your own.

If you're ready to stop taking pain medicine, your doctor will lower your dosage in steps for your safety. Your body will have time to adjust so you won't go through a withdrawal.

If the medication is not working, talk to your doctor.