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Ethical considerations in effective pain management at the end of life

Vicki Jackson, MD, MPH
Lida Nabati, MD
Section Editors
Janet Abrahm, MD
Kenneth E Schmader, MD
Deputy Editor
Diane MF Savarese, MD


Many patients and families suffer from untreated pain at the end of life. Failure to treat pain effectively can result both from a lack of clinician training in palliative care and also from the fear of violating ethical, moral, and legal tenets in the administration of pain medication to the dying patient. Clinicians often have an exaggerated perception of the risk of hastening death by treating pain with opioids. Furthermore, they are frequently unclear about the distinctions between pain management, sedation for intractable symptoms, physician-assisted dying, and euthanasia. Physicians are faced with balancing these concerns with their legal duty and moral obligation to treat pain in the suffering patient. (See "Palliative sedation" and "Physician-assisted dying: Understanding, evaluating, and responding to requests for medical aid in dying".)

Studies of patients in their last week of life reveal that up to 35 percent describe pain as severe or intolerable [1]. Quill and Brody define the escalation of pain that is uncontrolled at the end of life as a “medical emergency” [2]. Untreated pain can be devastating to the patient and family not only because of the suffering it produces, but also because it interferes with the ability to complete many important tasks at the end of life. These tasks include, for example, getting legal affairs in order, grieving the loss of his/her life, making amends in strained relationships, and saying goodbye to loved ones.

Pain management at the end of life is the right of the patient and the duty of the clinician. The World Health Organization states that patients have a right to have their pain treated [3]. This is supported by the Supreme Court ruling in Vacco versus Quill, which addressed the use of aggressive palliative care in the last days of life. Justice O’Connor stated in her concurring opinion that “…suffering patients have a constitutionally cognizable interest in obtaining relief from the suffering that they may experience in the last days of their lives” [4]. (See "Legal aspects in palliative and end of life care in the United States".)

This topic review will focus on the ethical issues surrounding pain management in patients receiving end of life care. Other ethical issues that arise in patients receiving palliative care (eg, advance care planning, withholding and withdrawing care, physician-assisted dying), principles of pain management, and palliative sedation for control of refractory symptoms at the end of life are discussed elsewhere. (See "Advance care planning and advance directives" and "Ethical issues in palliative care" and "Withdrawal from and withholding of dialysis" and "Physician-assisted dying: Understanding, evaluating, and responding to requests for medical aid in dying" and "Pain assessment and management in the last weeks of life" and "Palliative care: End-stage renal disease", section on 'Pain' and "Palliative sedation" and "Palliative care for patients with advanced heart failure: Decision support, symptom management, and psychosocial assistance", section on 'Pain'.)


Many clinicians are unclear about how aggressive symptom management in palliative care differs from physician-assisted dying (PAD) and voluntary active euthanasia (VAE). Palliative care is a comprehensive approach to treating physical, spiritual, and psychological suffering in a patient at any stage of a serious illness, including at the end of life. While this may include prescribing pain medication that carries with it a very small risk of hastening death, any hastening of death is not the intention of the treating clinician. The use of medication intended to treat pain or relieve discomfort is legal in all states.

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Literature review current through: Oct 2017. | This topic last updated: Apr 19, 2017.
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