Managing Pain: Beyond Drugs

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, MS, DO on February 29, 2024
2 min read

When someone is diagnosed with a serious, life-threatening illness, one of the first things they are likely to worry about is pain. In fact, it's just about the most common question patients and their caregivers ask. There are effective treatments for pain, and you can put those treatment plans in place ahead of time. It's also important to know that medications are not the only option available to treat pain in the context of palliative care. For example, radiation therapy can sometimes be helpful in treating pain from tumor growth and in easing bone pain related to cancer.

There are a number of non-drug tools for coping with pain. They can be used on their own or in combination with drug therapies.

Some of the options patients have found helpful include:

  • Massage. A lot of people find relief from gentle massage, and some hospice agencies have volunteers who are trained in massage therapy. Several studies have found that massage is effective in relieving pain and other symptoms for people with serious illness.
  • Relaxation techniques. Guided imagery, hypnosis, biofeedback, breathing techniques, and gentle movement such as tai chi. Relaxation techniques are often very effective, particularly when a patient -- or a caregiver -- is feeling anxious.
  • Acupuncture. Several studies have found that acupuncture can be helpful in relieving pain for people with serious illnesses such as cancer.
  • Physical therapy. If a person has been active before and is now confined to bed, even just moving the hands and feet a little bit can help.
  • Pet therapy. If you have bouts of pain that last 5, 10, or 15 minutes, trying to find something pleasant -- like petting an animal's soft fur -- to distract and relax yourself can be helpful.
  • Gel packs. These are simple packs that can be warmed or chilled and used to ease localized pain.

Ask the palliative care team or hospice in your area if they can provide you a referral for any of these forms of pain management.

Maintaining a comfortable, relaxing atmosphere around the patient goes a long way toward easing pain.