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Cancer Pain: Rehabilitation

One way to recover from cancer pain is with rehabilitation, specifically cancer rehabilitation medicine – a subspecialty of physical medicine and rehabilitation.

Dr. Sean Smith, director of cancer rehabilitation talks about the importance after treatment to not only help with maintaining strength but also as a form of pain management.

What is the benefit of cancer rehabilitation?

Cancer rehabilitation is impairment-driven. This means it pin-points specific issues and addresses the issue head on. For example, a breast cancer patient may have numbness in her feet and shoulder pain. These two pains are caused by two different things. The numbness in her feet could be a side effect of the chemotherapy. The shoulder pain could be due to a muscle spasm. These two pains therefore will have two different, specific treatments. This more effective than one overall pain medicine, such as an opioid.

Is cancer rehabilitation just physical therapy?

Cancer rehabilitation is way more than just physical therapy. Cancer rehabilitation may include physical and occupational therapy, but also speech-language pathology, psychology, and other specialties that help restore a person’s function after undergoing cancer treatment.

How does cancer rehabilitation work?

The patient would start with an office visit. There, the patient would discuss with a cancer rehabilitation physician about the pain they are experiencing. The physician would take a detailed history, perform a physical exam, and run any necessary diagnostic tests. The physician then works with the patients to develop a specialized treatment plan.

What are some of the treatment plans cancer rehabilitation offers?

Treatment may include exercises to do at home or a nerve block (an injection to the source of the pain). Treatment may also include desensitization techniques and medication. All treatments are designed specifically for the patient and their pain.

What is a common cancer rehabilitation patient?

Cancer rehabilitation sees a lot of breast cancer survivors. This is because their treatment often has an aching pain side effect. Cancer rehabilitation also sees many head and neck cancer survivors. They also work with any weakness that can lead to back pain. These weaknesses can come from brain tumors or bone marrow transplants. They also work with anyone with a disability from their cancer treatment, such as an amputation or nerve damage making it hard to walk.

Is cancer rehabilitation a long process?

Treatment is often quick and easy. Most of the time, patients are not required to go to endless physically therapy appointments. A patient may be given exercises to perform at home or the gym. A patient may also be given a nerve block (an injection that treats the pain.) Treatment is usually a one-time visit.

Does cancer rehabilitation include a lot of medication?

Treatment often includes no medication. Rather than using an opioid to treat overall pain, cancer rehabilitation pin points the source of the problem and treats that head on with exercises or a nerve block. If a patient does go on medication, the medication usually has minimal side effects.

How do I start cancer rehabilitation?

Most national cancer centers have cancer rehabilitation services. Cancer centers also often have patient navigators who can help guide you to the services you need. Even your local American Cancer Society can help guide you.

To make an appointment, please talk with your medical team for a referral.

Learn more about cancer rehabilitation

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