Cancer Pain Medications

Opioids, NSAIDs, and Other Medications for Cancer Pain

Fortunately, when it comes to treating cancer pain, there are several medications available to help you manage it.

Cancer pain medications—whether they're over-the-counter (OTC) or require a prescription—can help you maintain your quality of life.

Your doctor will prescribe medications based on numerous factors, including the type of pain you have as well as the severity of your pain.

Regardless of whether a medication is over-the-counter or requires a prescription, you still need to have a conversation with your doctor before taking it. Some medications have side effects, such as nausea or drowsiness, or they may interact with other medications you're taking. It's very important to follow your doctor's recommendations closely.

Over-the-Counter Medications for Cancer Pain Acetaminophen is used in people with mild cancer pain. It reduces pain, and a popular brand of acetaminophen is Tylenol. Sometimes acetaminophen is used in other pain medications, so it's important to tell your doctor if you've been taking an OTC acetaminophen if he or she prescribes a medication with acetaminophen.

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) help control mild cancer pain in addition to any inflammation in your body. Ibuprofen (eg, Advil) and naproxen (eg, Aleve) are examples of NSAIDs.

Prescription Medications for Cancer Pain Anti-depressants aren't just used to treat depression: They can help relieve tingling and burning pain. Sometimes nerve damage from cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery, can cause this type of pain. An example of an anti-depressant for cancer pain is duloxetine (eg, Cymbalta).

Anti-epileptics—also known as anti-convulsants and anti-seizures—are also used to help manage tingling and burning pain from nerve injury due to cancer treatments. Pregabalin (eg, Lyrica) is an example of an anti-epileptic for cancer pain.

Steroids can help treat pain and address any inflammation in your body. Examples of steroids used for cancer pain are prednisone (eg, Deltasone) and dexamethasone (eg, Decadron).

Opioids (also commonly referred to as narcotics) are prescribed for severe pain. These are powerful medications when it comes to treating your cancer pain. Opioids are sometimes taken with acetaminophen, aspirin, and ibuprofen.

Oxycodone (eg, OxyContin) is an example of an opioid. Your doctor will monitor you very carefully when taking this medication.

Which Cancer Pain Medications Are Right for You? Your doctor will let you know which cancer pain medications will help treat your pain and other symptoms. No matter what cancer pain medications your doctor prescribes, they can be part of your overall pain control plan, and they can help prevent cancer pain from getting worse.


This article was reviewed/updated by Norm Shealy, MD, in spring 2019.

Updated on: 04/04/19
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