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Pain management in cancer care encompasses all the actions taken to keep people with cancer as free of pain as possible. It includes pharmacological, psychological, and spiritual approaches to prevent, reduce, or stop pain sensations.
It is estimated that more than 800,000 new cases of cancer are diagnosed each year in the United States, and 430,000 cancer victims will die. Though recent figures are hopeful and suggest a decline in both the incidence of cancer and the number of people who die from it, studies have consistently shown that at least 70% of cancer patients in the advanced stage of the disease will experience significant pain. Pain is a localized sensation ranging from mild discomfort to an unbearable, excruciating experience. It is, in its origins, a protective mechanism, designed to alert the brain to injury or disease conditions. Unfortunately, when the cause of the pain is known, such as in diagnosed cancer, and treatment is initiated, pain can often continue.
Once the message of cancer has been received and interpreted by the brain, further pain can be counter-productive. Pain can have a negative impact on a person's quality of life, causing depression and impeding recovery. Unrelieved pain can become a syndrome in its own right and cause a downward spiral in a person's health and outlook. Proper pain management facilitates recovery, prevents additional health complications, and improves an individual's quality of life.
Several independent studies of the relief of pain have shown that pain is often under-treated by the medical profession. For this reason, in the spring and summer of 2000, the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Health-care Organizations (JCAHO) and the American Pain Society (APS) developed standards for proper pain management.
The treatment of pain has been a major endeavor since ancient times. By 400 B.C., the father of modern medicine, Hippocrates, had theorized that the brain, not the heart, was the controlling center of the body, and Greek anatomists had begun to identify various nerves and their purposes. The pain-relieving properties of opium were already known and were being utilized to stop suffering. Two thousand years ago, in China, acupuncture was being used to reduce pain.
Pain is the means by which the peripheral nervous system (PNS) warns the central nervous system (CNS) of injury or potential injury to the body. The CNS comprises the brain and spinal cord, and the PNS is composed of the nerves that stem from and lead into the CNS. PNS includes all nerves throughout the body except the brain and spinal cord.
A pain message is transmitted to the CNS by special PNS nerve cells called nociceptors. Nociceptors are distributed throughout the body and respond to different stimuli depending on their location. For example, nociceptors that extend from the skin are stimulated by sensations such as pressure, temperature, and chemical changes.
When a nociceptor is stimulated, neurotransmitters are released from cells. Neurotransmitters are chemicals found within the nervous system that facilitate nerve cell communication. The nociceptor transmits its signal to nerve cells within the spinal cord, which conveys the pain message to the thalamus, a specific region in the brain.
Once the brain has received and processed the pain message and coordinated an appropriate response, pain has served its purpose. The body uses natural pain killers, called endorphins, that are meant to derail further pain messages from the same source. However, these natural pain killers may not adequately dampen a continuing pain message. Also, depending on how the brain has processed the pain information, certain hormones, such as prostaglandins, may be released. These hormones enhance the pain message and play a role in immune system responses to injury, such as inflammation. Certain neurotransmitters, especially substance P and calcitonin gene-related peptide, actively enhance the pain message at the injury site and within the spinal cord.
It has been hypothesized that uninterrupted and unrelenting pain can induce changes in the spinal cord. In the past, unrelenting pain has been treated by severing a nerve's connection to the CNS. However, the lack of any sensory information being relayed by that nerve can cause pain transmission in the spinal cord to go into overdrive, as evidenced by the phantom limb pain experienced by amputees. Evidence is accumulating that unrelenting pain or the complete lack of nerve signals increases the number of pain receptors in the spinal cord. Nerve cells in the spinal cord may also begin secreting pain-amplifying neurotransmitters independent of actual pain signals from the body. Immune chemicals, primarily cytokines, may play a prominent role in such changes.
The majority of cancer pain results from a cancerous tumor pressing on organs, nerves, or bone. However, several studies by pain-pioneer Dr. John Bonica and others have shown that a predictable 78% of all cancer pain is indeed related to the disease, but an impressive 19% was found to be caused instead by treatment of the cancer. Three percent of all complaints of pain were unrelated to either the disease or treatment.
Cancer pain is generally divided into three categories:
General guidelines developed by the World Health Organization (WHO) for pain management apply to cancer pain management as well. These guidelines follow a three-step ladder approach:
Although antidepressant drugs were developed to treat depression, they are also effective in combating chronic headaches, cancer pain, and pain associated with nerve damage. Antidepressants shown to have analgesic (pain reducing) properties include amitriptyline (Elavil), trazodone (Desyrel), and imipramine (Tofranil). Anti-convulsant drugs share a similar background with antidepressants. Developed to treat epilepsy, anticonvulsants were found to relieve pain as well. Drugs such as phenytoin (Dilantin) and carbamazepine (Tegretol) are prescribed to treat the pain associated with nerve damage.
Close monitoring of the effects of pain medications is required in order to assure that adequate amounts of medication are given to produce the desired pain relief. When a person is comfortable with a certain dosage of medication, oncologists typically convert to a long-acting version of that medication. Transdermal fentanyl patches (Duragesic) are a common example of an long-acting opioid
Pain treatment options that do not involve drugs are often used as adjuncts to, rather than replacements for, drug therapy. One of the benefits of non-drug therapies is that an individual can take a more active stance against pain. Relaxation techniques, such as yoga and meditation, are used to shift the focus of the brain away from the pain, decrease muscle tension, and reduce stress. Tension and stress can also be reduced through biofeedback, in which an individual consciously attempts to modify skin temperature, muscle tension, blood pressure, and heart rate.
Participating in normal activities and exercising can also help control pain levels. Through physical therapy, an individual learns beneficial exercises for reducing stress, strengthening muscles, and staying fit. Regular exercise has been linked to production of endorphins, the body's natural pain killers.
Acupuncture involves the insertion of small needles into the skin at key points. Acupressure uses these same key points, but involves applying pressure rather than inserting needles. Both of these methods may work by prompting the body to release endorphins. Applying heat or being massaged are very relaxing and help reduce stress. Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) applies a small electric current to certain parts of nerves, potentially interrupting pain signals and inducing release of endorphins. To be effective, use of TENS should be medically supervised.
Assessment of cancer pain is absolutely essential to good pain management. Pain scales or questionnaires are
Author Info: Julia Barrett, Joan Schonbeck R.N., The Gale Group Inc., Gale, Detroit, Gale Encyclopedia of Cancer, 2002
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