Pain Management for Lung Cancer Patients

People that develop lung cancer usually visit the doctor with concerns if they notice symptoms. One of the most common symptoms of lung cancer in patients is chronic or acute pain. If symptoms become too severe, the patient can choose to seek pain management support from their physician.

When doctors administer treatments to patients that only relieve symptoms and don’t actually cure or slow down the illness, they’re called palliative treatments. Doctors may choose to administer palliative treatments alone (if tumors have progressed too far) or in conjunction with curative therapies like chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery.

What Causes Lung Cancer Pain?

Cancer pain can appear in several varying ways. Location and severity rely on the type of cancer and how far along it’s spread. Lung cancer patients experience different pain than patients with cancer somewhere else. Additionally, not every person with cancer experiences the same level of discomfort. There are a few reasons why patients may experience discomfort from lung tumors. They are:

Local Tumors

The tumors themselves. When they grow too large, tumors press on, grow into, or otherwise destroy nearby tissue. When they do this, they impact other organs, nerves, and bones and cause discomfort.

Distant Tumors

When advanced lung tumors spread to the lung tissues or other regions in the body, they also may cause pain. Pleural effusion is a condition that involves tumors spreading to the lung tissue lining and causing them to produce too much fluid. When advanced lung tumors spread to the lung tissue lining this condition can cause pain.

Cancer Treatment

While chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery, help alleviate lung cancer pain in many situations, they also cause it. Chemotherapy kills healthy cells as well as cancerous ones, which may cause discomfort. Radiation and surgery can cause infection, inflammation, or other complications at the application site which can increase pain levels.

Patients may experience dull pains, or they may be intense and sharp. Certain areas may also feel burning, throbbing, or aching discomfort. Additionally, pain may be chronic, sporadic, mild, or severe. Based on these specifications, there’ll be different levels of pain management the doctor may consider.

How Pain Management Helps

Patients experiencing intense bouts of pain can sometimes feel like it’s too overwhelming. When pain is at this level, it can feel like nothing else matters, and other activities become almost impossible to complete. There are different sources of pain throughout the body based on the stage of illness, the patient’s overall health, and previous treatments.

Palliative therapy for pain management is supposed to improve the patient’s quality of life and ability to cope with the disease, subsequent treatments, and recovery. Even patients with lower survival rates can still benefit from pain relief, so they can be as comfortable as possible during their lung cancer timeline.

Patients that successfully manage their lung cancer pain report improvements in:

  • Overall outlook
  • Mental, spiritual, and emotional health
  • Receptiveness to treatment
  • Prognosis

Options for Pain Management

Once patient details are established, the doctor will map out a specific pain management plan for the patient based on need. Options may include over-the-counter drugs, prescribed medications, integrative therapies, or self-care routines among others.

Surgery, Chemotherapy, Radiation

Some curative treatments may also apply to pain management. Doctors may recommend some minimally invasive surgeries to extract excess fluid buildup or remove tumors that may be causing discomfort. One surgical procedure, the cordotomy, can block pain signals from reaching the brain. This procedure is invasive and only considered in severe cases of chronic pain. Additionally, oncologists may apply radiation or chemotherapy medications to the cancer site that can shrink tumors and relieve discomfort.


Doctors can prescribe medications or recommend over-the-counter medicine to help with a patient’s discomfort. What they advise is based on the level of pain. For mild levels, the doctor may point the patient to over-the-counter drugs like aspirin, acetaminophen (Tylenol), and anti-inflammatories like Ibuprofen or Advil. When appropriate, doctors may also recommend transdermal patches or topical creams that can deliver medication relief through the skin.

With higher levels of pain, doctors may prescribe certain medications. These can include opioids like morphine or oxycodone. Or other medications like antidepressants, steroids, and anti-seizure drugs that have been known to help with pain management. Patients must take care with imbibing opioids, as they can be addictive and cause withdrawal symptoms when abused for too long.

Complementary Therapies

Not meant to replace primary anti-cancer treatments, complementary therapies may also help lung cancer patients manage their discomfort.

Some integrative treatments patients can consider include:

  • Acupuncture
  • Massage
  • Physical therapy
  • Meditation
  • Nerve Stimulation
  • Hypnosis

Not everyone experiences complementary therapies the same, and some patients may not find relief at all. Your physician or oncologist should be the final say when considering complementary treatments for palliative care.

Self- Care

The patient can try self-care techniques and incorporate a healthy routine that can help alleviate pain. This can include things as simple as taking a hot bath, practicing intense breathing, exercising, or stretching. Taking the time to do enjoyable (and easy) things is another way the patient can distract themselves from discomfort. Other self-care the patient can practice include sleeping enough, wearing comfortable clothes, utilizing comfortable furniture, and incorporating an ice pack.

Reach out to your doctor or physician if the pain becomes too difficult to manage. They’ll have many helpful resources and support to offer.