Pain treatment in childhood cancer

Pain treatment in childhood cancer

Medicines which relieve pain are called analgesics. If your child is able to take medicine or tablets, then this is how they will receive pain relief.  If your child has very strong pain, they may need intravenous medicine because this works fastest.

Key points to remember

  • medicines that relieve pain are called analgesics
  • if your child can take medicine or tablets by mouth, then this is how they will receive pain relief
  • if your child has very strong pain, they may need intravenous medicine  because this works fastest

What are the different types of pain medication?

This page is part of a whole section about childhood cancer.

Analgesics are medicines that relieve pain. Your child can have these:

  • by mouth (oral)
  • injected into a vein (intravenous)
  • on the skin (topical)
  • absorbed through the skin (transdermal)
  • breathed in (inhalation)

Oral analgesia

If your child can take their medicine or tablets by mouth, they will receive pain relief this way.

The most common oral medicine is paracetamol. Even strong pain medicines such as morphine work well when taken by mouth.

Intravenous analgesia

If your child has very strong pain, a doctor or nurse will often give the medicine intravenously because this works fastest.

Your child may also have intravenous pain medicine if they cannot take medicine by mouth.

Doctors and nurses can now give most pain relieving medicines intravenously.  They may give this as a single dose (called a bolus) or as a continuous infusion over a number of days. See Drips (intravenous fluids or IV).

If your child is over 5 years and has ongoing pain, they may have a PCA. PCA stands for patient controlled analgesia. It is a machine that has a button for the patient to push when they have pain. See PCA (patient controlled analgesia)

Topical analgesia

There are creams and gels that a doctor or nurse can put on your child ’s skin to numb the needle pain. Common topical analgesics are Emlacream and Ametopgel.

An hour before the procedure, someone from your child's healthcare team will:

  • put about a teaspoon of the cream or gel on your child's skin where the needle will go in
  • cover the area with a clear plastic dressing
  • remove the dressing before the needle prick happens and wipe away the gel or cream – your child can help with this

The anaesthetic effect will last for a couple of hours.

Transdermal analgesia

These are small patches which go on the skin. They take a number of hours before they provide a continuous amount of pain relief over a number of days – usually 3 to 7. They are for children where pain is expected to last for a week or more.

Inhalation analgesia

Nitrous oxide is a gas which your child can breath in (inhale) through a mask or mouthpiece. It works quickly and gives short-term relief. It is useful for uncomfortable procedures like dressing changes. Quite often, children over 4 years of age can understand how to hold the mask and suck on the mouthpiece. See Nitrous oxide.

What to do before giving your child medicine for pain at home

Follow the instructions your doctor or nurse gave you when they prescribed the pain medicine. If you don't have instructions or you are unsure about the instructions, phone the hospital and speak to the doctor or nurse on the ward - say you want to check the pain medicine to give, the dose and how often to give it.

All the pages in the childhood cancer section of this website have been written by health professionals who work in the field of paediatric oncology. They have been reviewed by the members of the National Child Cancer Network (NZ). Medical information is authorised by the clinical leader of the National Child Cancer Network.

This page last reviewed 05 October 2018.
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