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Overview of cancer pain syndromes

Russell K Portenoy, MD
Lara K Dhingra, PhD
Section Editor
Janet Abrahm, MD
Deputy Editor
Diane MF Savarese, MD


Pain is a complex symptom that affects most aspects of life, including physical functioning, daily activity, psychological and emotional status, and social life. Among patients with cancer, there is substantial heterogeneity in how pain is experienced and in how it appears.

In many cases, the constellation of symptoms and signs can suggest a specific cancer pain syndrome [1]. The identification of such a syndrome may help to elucidate the etiology of the pain, direct the diagnostic evaluation, clarify the prognosis for the pain or the disease itself, and guide therapeutic intervention.

Cancer pain syndromes can be broadly divided into those that are acute and those that are chronic. Acute pain syndromes usually accompany diagnostic or therapeutic interventions, whereas chronic pain syndromes usually are directly related to the neoplasm itself or to an antineoplastic therapy [1].

This topic review will provide an overview of acute and chronic cancer pain syndromes. Cancer pain assessment is discussed elsewhere. (See "Assessment of cancer pain".)


Most acute cancer pain syndromes are iatrogenic, ie, related to a diagnostic test or treatment (table 1). However, some are disease-related, such as pain due to acute hemorrhage into a tumor, bone pain from a pathologic fracture, and visceral pain from acute obstruction or perforation of a hollow structure (table 2).

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Literature review current through: Nov 2017. | This topic last updated: Aug 22, 2017.
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