Acute pain is, concurrently, the bane of our existence and the key to our survival. Chronic pain, which many cancer patients suffer from, falls only into the former category. Cancer itself often causes pain, as does cancer treatment, so finding ways to combat it is crucial to enhancing the quality of life of patients.
At one point it seemed like opioids would be the answer to chronic pain management (and for some people they are), but their highly addictive properties have resulted in many oncologists (and other doctors) reducing their rate of prescription of these types of drugs. On the positive side, non-drug treatments are being paid more attention, and are being proven effective in clinical trials. This article will focus on a few of those alternative forms of pain management.
Acupuncture (which involves the insertion of thin needles into the skin) has been used as a pain management tool by traditional Chinese medical practitioners for thousands of years. Oncology acupuncture, a relatively new branch of this age-old practice, is being shown through clinical trials to be an effective co-treatment for cancer-related pain. The results from one study, in which patients either received auricular acupuncture or a placebo, indicated that the pain intensity of the intervention group decreased by 36% (while those in the placebo group only reported a 2% decrease in pain intensity). Another trial conducted with patients to assess the efficacy of acupuncture as a co-treatment for post-operative pain showed a “decrease of 1.4 points on a 0-10 pain scale in the intervention group, compared to 0.6 in the control group.”
Along with its stress-relieving and mood-enhancing properties, meditation can also be used as a co-treatment for chronic cancer-related pain. “Meditation uses neural pathways that make the brain less sensitive to pain and increases the use of the brain’s own pain-reducing opioids.” Meditation is free, can be practised in your home, and studies have shown that positive effects can be felt after just four days!
Technological advancements have led us to the point where we are now able to immerse ourselves in the virtual world. For many people, Virtual Reality (VR) is a game. For others, it has the very real effect of decreasing their pain. According to the Gate Control Theory, the “level of attention paid to the pain, the emotion associated with the pain and past experience of the pain all play a role in how the pain will be interpreted.” If this is true, then the fact that VR can transport one to a completely different world clearly highlights its pain reduction powers. But VR does more than just distract us from pain; in the words of Brennan Siegel, VR “also helps block pain signals from reaching the brain.” A recent study conducted with breast cancer patients demonstrated a significant reduction in self-reported pain scores when VR was used as a co-treatment alongside morphine. In another study, children were given chemotherapy with and without VR and 82% of them said that the treatment was better with VR than without it.
Chronic pain is complex and finding ways to treat it is a major challenge. What has become glaringly obvious is that pain medications do not work to the desired effect for everyone, and co-treatments, such as those explored in this article, have the power to drastically enhance cancer patients’ quality of life.