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Am Fam Physician. 2014 Jul 1;90(1):26-32.

Pharmacologic management of pain at the end of life.

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Clinical Center, National Institute of Health, Bethesda, MD, USA.
Holy Cross Hospital, Silver Spring, MD, USA.


Although many patients experience debilitating pain at the end of life, there are many options to improve analgesia and quality of life. Pain assessment using a validated tool, with attention to patient function and specific goals, helps tailor individual treatment plans. The World Health Organization pain ladder offers a stepwise guideline for approaching pain management. However, for many patients with terminal illness, strong opioids are necessary for efficient and effective analgesia. Equianalgesic dosing tables and expert guidelines aid in initiating, monitoring, and adjusting doses of oral and parenteral opioids. Clinicians should feel comfortable administering a repeat dose after the time to peak analgesic effect if the patient is still in pain. In patients with constant pain, using scheduled long-acting opioids may significantly improve pain control. Among pain subtypes, visceral pain management usually requires multiple drugs. Neuropathic pain responds well to adjuvant pharmacotherapies, such as anticonvulsants or antidepressants, in addition to opioids. Opioid-induced hyperalgesia can occur with any dose of an opioid, but is more common with higher doses of parenteral morphine and hydromorphone. With appropriate counseling, most patients with a history of substance abuse will comply with a pain treatment plan.

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