Things you can do to reduce cancer pain

As well as painkillers, there are other ways to help control cancer pain. These include TENS machines and acupuncture.

There are also many ways that you and your family or friends can help to control your pain.

Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS)

TENS stands for transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation. TENS may temporarily help pain that is in one area of the body. But more studies are needed in people with cancer pain to know this for sure.

Your doctor or nurse will stick small pads onto your skin, which release a small electrical charge. This causes a tingling feeling in the skin. By stimulating the nerves that run up the spine to the brain, TENS blocks the nerves carrying the pain messages.

TENS may be worth a try because it’s easy to use and has few side effects. You can ask your doctor or specialist nurse if it could help your type of pain.


Acupuncture is a treatment that involves putting fine needles into the body at particular points. The needles are left in place for a short time and then removed.

There is not yet enough evidence to show for sure that acupuncture can relieve cancer pain. But some research studies have shown that acupuncture can reduce muscle pain or bone pain for some people. It makes the body release pain relieving chemicals. It seems to work very well when cancer pain is causing muscle spasms that make the pain worse.

Acupuncture is widely used in cancer hospitals and clinics, hospices and GP practices, so it is worth asking if it is available to you on the NHS.

Tips for you, your family and friends

There are many ways that you and your family can help to control your pain.

You may have noticed that your pain seems worse if you’re anxious or worried. It often seems worse at night if you can’t sleep and there’s nothing else to distract you. 

Here are some things to try that can help relieve your pain.

  • Change your position at least every two hours to prevent stiffness and sore skin.
  • Hot or cold packs can help relieve pain, but wrap them in a soft towel so they don't damage your skin.
  • Watching TV, reading or chatting can help to take your mind off your aches and pains.
  • Relaxation - use tapes or listen to some calming music and think of somewhere beautiful you'd like to be.
  • Try to breathe slowly and deeply when you are tense.
  • Massage - ask your family or friends to give gentle massage to your back, hands or feet, or treat yourself to a professional massage.
  • Aromatherapy, hypnotherapy, acupuncture and reflexology are all types of complementary therapies which might help
  • Talking to someone about your pain, perhaps a counsellor, can help to relieve stress and tension and make it easier to cope.

These things might help you to take some control over your pain and make it seem better for a time. Learning relaxation exercises can be very helpful if you can’t sleep.

Remember not to get too tired. Visitors can be a wonderful distraction, but when you’re not well it’s often better to see people just for short periods.

Last reviewed: 
31 Oct 2020
Next review due: 
20 Oct 2023
  • Transcutaneous electric nerve stimulation (TENS) for cancer pain in adults

    A Hurlow and others

    Cochrane Database Systematic Reviews, 2012

    Volume 14, Issue 3

  • Acupuncture for cancer-related pain in adults

    CA Paley and others

    Cochrane Database Systematic Reviews, 2015

  • Management of cancer pain: ESMO Clinical Practice Guidelines

    M Fallon and others

    Annals of Oncology, 2018. Volume 29, Supplement 4

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