On this page: Levels of pain control | How to use medicines | Using medicines safely | Travelling with medicines
Medicines that relieve pain are called analgesics. They do not affect the cause of the pain, but they can reduce pain effectively. The medicine that is best for you depends on the type of pain
you have and how severe it is.
Levels of pain control
There are different types and strengths of pain medicines suitable for different types of pain.
- Suitable for pain less than 3 on the pain scale.
- Examples include paracetamol and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).
- See treating mild pain for more information.
Mild to moderate
How to use medicines
Take your medicines regularly
Taking your medicines as prescribed is the best way to control the
pain. Some people call this ‘staying on top of the pain’. Doing this
may mean you can use lower doses of pain relief than if you were
to wait until the pain gets worse.
If you think your pain medicine isn’t working, it’s important to let
your doctor know as they may need to adjust the dose or prescribe
a different medicine.
Give your medicines time to work
Pain medicines may take different amounts of time to work.
This will depend on whether the active ingredient is released
slowly or immediately.
Slow release medicines
Slow release medicines release the active ingredient
continuously to provide pain control for 12–24 hours. They are
designed for chronic pain and need to be taken as prescribed. This
helps keep the amount of medicine in the blood high enough to be
constant and effective.
Immediate release medicines
Immediate release medicines release the active ingredient
quickly, usually in less than 30 minutes. They are designed for
occasional, temporary pain because they work fast but don’t last.
How quickly different medicines relieve pain also varies greatly
from person to person. It depends on how much medicine
you take (the dose) and how often you take it (the frequency).
Understand the different types of pain relief
Pain relief comes in many forms, so you may be taking substances
that you didn’t realise were a medicine. Complementary therapies
can also help to relieve pain.
These are medicines that your doctor
must authorise you to take and only a pharmacist can give you
(dispense). Most prescription medicines have two names:
- the generic name identifies the chemical compounds in the
drug that make it work
- the brand name is the manufacturer’s name for the medicine.
A medicine may have more than one brand name if it’s produced
by different companies. See a list of generic and brand names of
These are available without
a prescription, often from pharmacies and supermarkets, and
include over-the-counter medicines such as pain-killers and cold
medicines. Vitamin supplements and herbal remedies are also
considered non-prescription medicines.
These are therapies that can be used
with conventional medical treatments to improve your quality of life
and wellbeing. Complementary therapies include relaxation, talking
therapies, meditation, visualisation, acupuncture, aromatherapy,
reflexology, music therapy, art therapy and massage. For more
information, see other ways to control pain or read Cancer Council’s booklet
Understanding Complementary Therapies.
To manage your pain effectively, you may be given a combination
of prescription and non-prescription medicines. You may also want
to try complementary therapies to improve your quality of life.
Keep track of medicines
The National Prescribing Service (known as NPS MedicineWise)
provides a medicines list to help you record information about
what you need to take, when to take it, how much to take and why.
The list is available in different formats from nps.org.au.
PaperPrint the Medicines List to keep in your wallet or handbag.
OnlineCreate, edit and save the Medicines eList as a PDF.
Smartphone appDownload the MedicineList+ app, then
scan the barcode on the medicine packaging to add the
medicine to the app and set up alarms for taking the medicine.
Discuss your use of pain medicines with
family and friends
Family members and friends sometimes have opinions about the
pain relief you’re having. Your family members may feel anxious
about you taking strong pain medicines. This may be because they
are worried that you will become addicted.
Let your family know how the experience of pain affects you
emotionally, and that keeping the pain under control allows you to
remain comfortable and enjoy your time with them. You may want
to ask your treatment team if they can explain to your family and
carer why a particular medicine has been recommended for you.
Ways of taking medicines
Pain medicines are taken in several ways, depending on the type of medicine
and the form that it is available in.
|tablet or capsule
||This is the most common form of pain medicine.
|This may be an option if you have trouble swallowing
tablets or for convenience.
|This is sucked on the inside of your cheeks and gums
until it dissolves.
|A needle is inserted either into a vein (intravenously),
into a muscle (intramuscularly) or under the skin
|This is stuck on your skin and gradually releases
medicine into the body. The patch only needs to
be changed every few days.
|Medicine is slowly injected under the skin using a
small plastic tube and a small portable pump called
a syringe driver. This can take many hours or days.
|Medicine is slowly injected into a vein using a small
plastic tube and pump over many hours or days.
The pump has a button that you press to release a
set dose of medicine. This is called patient-controlled
analgesia (PCA). It is used in hospitals under the
supervision of a pain specialist.
||Liquid medicine that is delivered into the fluid
surrounding the spinal cord. It is commonly used
to treat the most severe cancer pain.
|A pellet is placed in the rectum, which dissolves and
is absorbed by the body. This may be suitable for
someone who has nausea or trouble swallowing.
Using medicines safely
Let your doctor, nurse or pharmacist know if you’re taking any
other medicines at the same time as your pain relief. This includes
all prescription and non-prescription medicines, vitamins, herbs
and other supplements. Different medicines may react with each
other, stop a medicine from working properly in the body, or
cause dangerous side effects. Some effects to keep in mind include:
- Many pills for colds and flu, and other over-the-counter
medicines, can be taken with analgesics without any harmful
effects. However, some over-the-counter medicines, such as
paracetamol and anti-inflammatories, contain pain-killers, so
a lower dose of pain medicine may be needed.
- Medicines for colds, menstrual (period) pain, headaches and
joint or muscle aches often contain a mixture of drugs, including
aspirin. People receiving chemotherapy should avoid aspirin
because it increases the risk of internal bleeding. Any minor cuts
are likely to bleed a lot and take longer to stop bleeding (clot).
- Over-the-counter medicines for allergies may cause drowsiness,
as can some pain medicines. Taking them together can make it
dangerous to drive or to operate machinery.
The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) collects
information about medicines and medical devices that haven’t
worked well. Search the Database of Adverse Event
Tips for using medicines safely
- Ask your doctor, nurse
or pharmacist for written
information about your pain
medicines: what they are for,
when and how to take them,
possible side effects and
how to manage them, and
any possible interactions with
other medicines, vitamins or
- Follow directions and ask
questions if you need more
- Keep medicines in their
original packaging so you and
other people always know
what they’re for.
- Store medicines in a safe
place that is out of reach
- Remind yourself when to take
your medicines by writing
a note, setting an alarm or
programming a reminder on
your phone. This is safer than
leaving your pills out.
- Let your health care team
know of any side effects.
- Regularly check the expiry
dates of medicines. If they
are near or past their expiry,
see your doctor for a new
- Take medicines that have
expired or are no longer
needed to the pharmacy to
dispose of them safely.
- Check with your health care
team whether it is safe to
take any complementary
therapies, such as nutritional
supplements, together with
your pain medicine.
- Find out more about your
medicines by calling the
National Prescribing Service
(known as NPS MedicineWise)
Medicines Line on 1300
MEDICINE (1300 633 424).
- Call the Adverse Medicine
Events Line on 1300 134 237,
and tell your health care team
immediately if you suspect
you’ve had a reaction to any
kind of medicine. If you need
urgent assistance, call 000.
Travelling with medicines
It’s possible to take prescription medicines overseas for your own
personal use, but it’s best to follow a few guidelines.
- Ask your doctor if you need to change your medicine schedule
to account for time differences.
- Make sure you have enough medicines to cover the whole time
you’re away, and pack a few extra doses in case you are delayed
for any reason.
- Check with the embassies of the countries you’re visiting to
make sure your medicine is legal there.
- Carry a letter from your doctor or pharmacist outlining what
the medicine is, and how much you’ll be taking, and stating that
the medicine is for your personal use.
- Keep medicines in their original packaging so they can be easily
identified, and make sure the name on the medicines matches
the name on the passport.
- Ask your doctor if there are limits on the amount of medicines
you can take overseas – check online for different countries.
- Have any medicines you need ready for inspection at the airport.
Liquid medicines are exempt from liquid restrictions, as are any
icepacks or gel-filled heat packs that are needed to control the
temperature of the medicines onboard the flight.
Reviewed by: Dr Melanie Lovell, Clinical Ass Prof, Medicine, Northern Clinical School, Sydney Medical School, University of Sydney, and Palliative Medicine Consultant Physician, Greenwich Hospital, NSW; Nathaniel Alexander, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council NSW, NSW; Anne Booms, Palliative Care Nurse Practitioner, Canberra Hospital, ACT; Dr Roger Goucke, Consultant, Department of Pain Management, Specialist Pain Medicine Physician, Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital, and Clinical Ass Prof, School of Medicine and Pharmacology, University of Western Australia, WA; John Marane, Consumer; and Dr Jane Trinca, Director, Barbara Walker Centre for Pain Management, St Vincent’s Hospital, VIC.