Medical therapies for pain

Sometimes medicines or physical, psychological or complementary methods cannot relieve severe pain related to cancer. More aggressive or invasive methods may be needed.


Different types of surgery may be used to help manage severe pain. Removing as much of a tumour as possible is called debulking. Reducing the size of a tumour can relieve pain by lowering the pressure on nearby tissues or organs.

In serious cases, surgery may be used to cut nerves, often near the spinal cord. Cutting the nerves interrupts the pathways that take pain signals to the brain. This surgery is only done in certain cases and when other methods of pain control do not work.

Surgery may be used to fix (stabilize) bones in the spine so the person doesn’t have pain when they move. Surgery may also be used to prevent complications from a tumour or its treatment, such as a blocked small intestine or colon.

Find out more about surgery.

Epidural anesthetic

Epidural anesthetic (also called spinal anesthetic) involves giving pain medicines into the area around the spinal cord using a needle or catheter (tube) placed in the space next to the spine. It is given by an anesthesiologist. Doctors may use this type of treatment when other methods of pain control do not work.

Nerve block

A nerve block is a procedure in which the doctor injects drugs into or around a nerve or into the space around the spinal cord. The drugs used are a local anesthetic and medicine to block pain, such as alcohol, steroid or opioid. The drugs block pain by destroying nerve tissue or blocking pain signals so they cannot reach the brain.

Nerve blocks can help if the pain can be traced to one damaged nerve. How a nerve block is done, as well as the risks and benefits of the procedure, will depend on where the nerve is located.


Neurostimulators are devices that can be permanently placed in the body. These devices send electrical impulses that block pain signals from nerves so they cannot reach the brain. Neurostimulators are used in certain cases to treat chronic back or leg pain that does not respond to other pain control methods.

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy uses high-energy rays or particles to destroy cancer cells. It can relieve pain by shrinking a tumour that is pressing on nerves, organs or the spinal cord. Radiation therapy can also be used to relieve pain by treating cancer that has spread to the bone, which is called bone metastases. Sometimes only a few doses of radiation are needed to ease pain.

External beam radiation therapy is most commonly used to relieve pain. Stereotactic radiation therapy may be used to direct radiation therapy to very specific areas, such as a tumour in or near the spine or around areas that have already been given radiation. Radioisotope therapy or systemic radiation may be used to relieve pain from cancer that has spread to the bone.

Find out more about radiation therapy.


Chemotherapy uses anticancer (cytotoxic) drugs to prevent cancer cells from growing and spreading. It may be used to shrink a tumour to reduce pain.

Find out more about chemotherapy.

Hormone therapy

Hormone therapy changes hormone levels in the body to slow the growth and spread of cancer cells. It may be used to relieve pain by shrinking a tumour that uses hormones to help it grow, such as breast or prostate cancer.

Find out more about hormone therapy.

Strengthening bones

Cancer that spreads to the bones often causes pain and can make the bones weak and more likely to break. Cementoplasty uses cement to fill parts of a bone that have been damaged by cancer. It can be used to make the bone more stable and so reduce pain. For example, bone cement may be injected into damaged vertebrae, which are the bones of the spinal column that support and protect the spinal cord. Strengthening the vertebrae can ease pain and help support the spine.

Physical therapy

Physical therapy uses exercises or other methods to help restore strength, increase movement and relieve pain. A physiotherapist or occupational therapist can teach you how to save energy and reduce pain by spreading out your activities during the day. Wheelchairs, walkers or splints may reduce pain and make it easier to move. Physical therapy sometimes includes blocking pain signals with heat or cold.

Expert review and references

  • American Cancer Society. Cancer Pain. 2015.
  • American Society of Clinical Oncology. Managing Cancer-Related Pain: A Guide for Patients, Families and Caregivers. 2017.
  • Cancer Care Nova Scotia. Guidelines for the management of cancer-related pain in adults. Halifax: Cancer Care Nova Scotia; 2005.
  • Symptom management pocket guides: pain. Cancer Care Ontario. Cancer Care Ontario. Toronto, ON: Cancer Care Ontario; 2010.
  • Cancer Care Ontario's symptom management guides-to-practice: pain. Cancer Care Ontario. Cancer Care Ontario. Toronto, ON: Cancer Care Ontario; 2010.
  • Cancer Research UK. Cancer and pain control. Cancer Research UK; 2014:
  • Fisch, M. J., and Cleeland, C. S . Managing cancer pain. Skeel, R. T., (Ed.). Handbook of Cancer Chemotherapy. 6th ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2003: 31: pp. 650-673.
  • Lavoie Smith, E . Cancer pain. Varricchio, C., Pierce, M., Hinds, P. S., & Ades, T. B. A Cancer Source Book for Nurses. 8th ed. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett Publishers; 2004: 23: pp. 349-360.
  • National Cancer Institute . Cancer Pain (PDQ®) Health Professional Version . 2017 :
  • National Comprehensive Cancer Network. NCCN Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology: Adult Cancer Pain (Version 2.2017).
  • Paice, J. A . Pain. Yarbro, C. H., Frogge, M. H. & Goodman, M. Cancer Symptom Management. 3rd ed. Sudbury: Jones and Bartlett Publishers; 2004: 6: pp. 77-96.

Medical disclaimer

The information that the Canadian Cancer Society provides does not replace your relationship with your doctor. The information is for your general use, so be sure to talk to a qualified healthcare professional before making medical decisions or if you have questions about your health.

We do our best to make sure that the information we provide is accurate and reliable but cannot guarantee that it is error-free or complete.

The Canadian Cancer Society is not responsible for the quality of the information or services provided by other organizations and mentioned on, nor do we endorse any service, product, treatment or therapy.

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