What are painkillers?

There are many different types and strengths of painkiller. It’s important to get the right type and to take them regularly, as your doctor or pharmacist advises you to.

Painkillers are also called analgesics or analgesia. There are many different types and strengths. The type you have depends on the kind of pain you have.

  • For mild pain, you usually have simple painkillers, such as paracetamol.
  • For moderate pain, you usually have treatment with opioid Open a glossary item painkillers, such as codeine.
  • For ongoing or severe pain, you usually have morphine type opioid painkillers.

You might also take other types of drugs that work alongside the traditional painkillers, depending on your type of pain. These can include:

  • anti inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen (Nurofen)
  • anti depressants such as amitriptyline.
  • anti epileptic drugs such as gabapentin.

You might be prescribed an anti epileptic or an anti depressant for nerve pain. An experienced doctor or nurse can judge which type or combination of painkillers work best for you. The important thing is that you have the right type for your pain and the right amount (dose).

Taking painkillers

It’s extremely important that you take your painkillers regularly, exactly as your doctor prescribes.

Don’t try to take as few as possible by spacing them out. You might then be in pain before you take your next dose. This is not good pain control. The idea is that you should take your next dose before you are in pain again.

If your pain isn't controlled, you can get nerve changes that make the pain more difficult to control in the future. So, it really is important to take painkillers regularly enough to keep the pain under control.

It isn't good to swing between not taking any painkillers and then taking a large dose when your pain is severe. It's harder to control pain if you wait until it is really bad.  A regular dose is better for your body and your quality of life.

If you still have pain

There are plenty of other painkillers to try if yours aren’t controlling your pain. Your pain specialist might add in other medicines which work on treating the pain in different ways. Or you might just need a slightly higher dose of the painkillers than you’re already taking.

It’s important to help your doctor or nurse get your dose right. So give them honest, detailed information about your pain and how well your painkillers are working.

You could also try some other ways of controlling pain.

  • Cancer Pain Management
    British Pain Society, 2010

  • Management of cancer pain in adult patients: ESMO Clinical Practice Guidelines
    M Fallon and others
    Annals of Oncology, 2018. Volume 29, Supplement 4

  • Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology (12th edition)
    VT DeVita, TS Lawrence, SA Rosenberg
    Wolters Kluwer, 2023

  • WHO guidelines for the pharmacological and radiotherapeutic management of cancer pain in adults and adolescents
    World health Organization (WHO), 2018

  • Analgesics
    British National Formulary (BNF)
    National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) website, accessed January 2024

  • The information on this page is based on literature searches and specialist checking. We used many references and there are too many to list here. Please contact patientinformation@cancer.org.uk with details of the particular issue you are interested in if you need additional references for this information.

Last reviewed: 
18 Jan 2024
Next review due: 
18 Jan 2027

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