August 18, 2017
Dealing with Breakthrough Pain

Dealing with Breakthrough Pain

by Peter Jaret  |  

Even when chronic pain is effectively controlled, flare-ups can occur. These sudden spikes in pain, which may last a few minutes or more, are called breakthrough pain. Although they are often associated with cancer, they can occur with many conditions that cause chronic pain.

Sometimes the trigger for breakthrough pain is obvious. If you have arthritis and twist your knee, for instance, you may suffer breakthrough pain. Coughing or constipation can exacerbate some forms of chest or abdominal pain. Moving the wrong way can cause chronic low back pain to flare up. But in other cases, breakthrough pain occurs without an identifiable cause.

Breakthrough pain episodes make it even harder to live with chronic pain. They also increase the risk of depression and anxiety and make it harder for pain sufferers to maintain normal everyday activities.

Discover the differences in Chronic Pain in Women vs Men.

Fortunately, there are ways to ease breakthrough pain and avoid it in the future.

Treat the cause

If you know what causes breakthrough pain, you may be able to avoid it. Using a knee brace to limit the movement of a joint that has arthritis can reduce the risk of injury, for example. If coughing causes a spike in pain, a cough suppressant may help. If you aren’t sure what causes breakthrough pain episodes, try keeping a diary of your activities, noting when pain flares up. You and your doctor may be able to identify certain activities or situations that can be avoided or modified to prevent breakthrough pain.

In some instances, the cause of breakthrough pain can be treated directly. Radiation or surgery can be used to shrink or remove tumors that are causing breakthrough pain, for example.

Optimize your pain medication

If you take medication for chronic pain and still experience breakthrough pain, your doctor may suggest adjusting your medication schedule to offer better continuous pain control. Another strategy is to take “rescue” medication when breakthrough pain occurs. Fast-acting opioid drugs are often prescribed to quiet a spike in pain. One of the most commonly prescribed pain medication for breakthrough pain is the narcotic fentanyl in pill form. Placed under the tongue, the drug enters the blood system very quickly, so it can relieve breakthrough pain fast.

Find other ways to get relief

Some of the same strategies that help with chronic pain can also offer relief for breakthrough pain. These include massage, hot or cold therapy, meditation, guided imagery, relaxation therapy, acupuncture, some forms of exercise, and even simply distracting yourself until the pain subsides.

If you suffer breakthrough pain, talk to your doctor about a personalized plan for treatment. No two chronic pain sufferers are alike. Effective treatment plans, experts say, should be tailored to the individual.

See also: 10 Daily Habits for Managing Chronic Pain.