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Research into cancer pain and treatment

Researchers are interested in what causes cancer pain, as well as how to cope and treat it.

Why we need research

All treatments have to be fully researched before they can become standard treatment for everyone. This is so that:

  • we can be sure they work
  • we can be sure they work better than the treatments that are already available
  • they are known to be safe

The research process

At first, researchers develop and test treatments in laboratories. This is so we know the treatments are safe before doctors try them in people with cancer.

Tests in people with cancer are called clinical trials. Until researchers complete a study and find that a new treatment works, doctors can’t use that treatment for cancer pain.

As well as research into different types of cancer and treatment, there is research going on into pain control and how we feel pain. Doctors are looking at how healthcare workers assess pain and different ways to control pain.

Assessing cancer pain

A proper pain assessment means that pain is more likely to be well controlled. A team of researchers in Edinburgh have developed a way of helping doctors and nurses to measure cancer pain. It’s called the Edinburgh Pain Assessment Tool (EPAT).

A study of EPAT is looking at whether the tool, and the training, is helping medical teams to assess and treat cancer pain better and faster.

Drugs to treat pain


Researchers are looking at a drug called Sativex for cancer pain that other strong painkillers don’t control. The main active ingredients of Sativex are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). Both of these ingredients come from the cannabis (marijuana) plant.


Doctors already use the drug ketamine in high doses as an anaesthetic. In this study, researchers want to find out if ketamine can be used in a slightly different way.  They are adding much lower doses of ketamine to standard painkillers. The aims of this study are to:

  • see if adding the drug ketamine to standard painkillers helps cancer related nerve pain
  • learn more about any side effects of using ketamine in this way
  • see if using ketamine improves anxiety, depression and quality of life


A molecule called Src could be involved in bone pain caused by cancer. Researchers are testing a drug called saracatinib which targets the Src molecule.

One of the trial's main aims is to see if people take fewer painkillers with saracatinib than with a dummy drug.


Radiotherapy works very well for many people with cancer pain. Researchers have found that having a single dose of radiotherapy in one visit, is as good as a having multiple sessions, for people with pain from cancer that has spread to the bone.

But radiotherapy doesn’t get rid of the pain for some people. Researchers have looked at how well a second course of radiotherapy worked for cancer that had spread to the bone. The trial team found that the bone pain improved in around half the people (around 50%) who had a second course of treatment and were followed up. 

Researchers continue to look into the best ways to use radiotherapy to treat cancer pain. 

High Intensity Focal Ultrasound (HIFU)

HIFU is a type of treatment that uses high frequency sound waves. These waves deliver a strong ultrasound beam to a specific part of a cancer, killing some of the cells. 

A study is looking at the using HIFU to treat pain from cancer spread to the bone (bone metastases or secondary bone cancer).

Complementary therapies

Researchers are interested in how pain affects everyday life. And if complementary therapies alongside cancer treatments can help to relieve pain.

In one study researchers are looking at how art therapy can change the experience of pain after breast cancer treatment. They also want to see if and how art therapy sessions can affect people’s experience of constant pain.

Another trial team are researching acupuncture. They want to find out if it can help people with nerve damage symptoms, such as pain, caused by chemotherapy. Acupuncture uses fine sterile needles. You have these needles put just under the skin at particular points on your body.

Doctors usually treat nerve damage with drugs to help with changed nerve sensations. These drugs include gabapentin, amitryptlline, pregabalin and some creams and gels. These can help, but doctors want to improve treatment for this group of people. In this trial, they are looking at acupuncture alongside the usual treatments.

Pain after surgery

People can have different levels of pain after cancer surgery but sometimes it can be severe. Doctors are interested in why people experience different levels of pain.

One trial team are looking into pain after surgery for womb or ovarian cancer. One way to help control the pain is to block the nerves that go to the skin of the abdomen. This is called a TAP nerve block. Women have a thin tube put into their abdomen. They then have a numbing drug through this tube. The aim of this trial is to find if the TAP nerve block improves pain control after surgery.

How to join a clinical trial

You can search for clinical trials looking at preventing, assessing or treating cancer pain on our clinical trials database. 

For clinical trials information, you can call the Cancer Research UK nurses on freephone 0808 800 4040, from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday
Last reviewed: 
22 Feb 2018
  • Cancer Research UK Clinical Trials Database

    Accessed February 2018

  • Clinical Commissioning Policy: Palliative Radiotherapy for Bone Pain

    NHS England

    July 2016

  • Palliative Radiotherapy at the End of Life: A Critical Review

    JA Jones and others

    CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, 2014

    Volume 64

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