Cancer pain management: safe and effective use of opioids

Eduardo Bruera, Judith A. Paice

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

31 Scopus citations


Pain remains a serious consequence of cancer and its treatment. Although significant advances have been made in providing effective cancer pain control, barriers persist. Lack of knowledge, limited time, financial restrictions, and diminished availability of necessary medications serve as significant obstacles. Safe and effective opioid use in a patient with cancer requires skill to overcome these challenges. Understanding the mechanism of action, along with the pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics, of opioids will lead to appropriate selection, dosing, and titration of these agents. Rotation from one opioid or route to another is an essential proficiency for oncologists. As opioid-related adverse effects often occur, the oncology team must be expert in preventing and managing constipation, nausea, sedation, and neurotoxicities. An emerging concern is overtreatment-the excessive and prolonged use of opioids in patients when these agents may produce more harm than benefit. This can occur when opioids are used inappropriately to treat comorbid psychologic issues such as anxiety and depression. Recognizing risk factors for overuse along with key components of universal precautions will promote safe use of these medications, supporting adherence and preventing diversion, thereby protecting the patient, the prescriber, and the community. Because substance use disorders are not rare in the oncology setting, attention must be given to the balance of providing analgesia while limiting harm. Caring for patients with substance misuse requires compassionate, multidisciplinary care, with input from supportive oncology/palliative care as well as addiction specialists.

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Medicine(all)

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