What Does Pancreatic Cancer Pain Feel Like?

Medically Reviewed By Faith Selchick, DNP, AOCNP
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Pancreatic cancer pain can sometimes feel like a burning, stabbing sensation in your stomach. However, you may experience different levels and types of pain depending on the cause, and size and location of the tumor. Your doctor can prescribe pain relief medication to help manage cancer pain. However, sometimes regular pain relief medication may not be effective. In this case, you may need to take opioid medication, such as morphine.

This article explains what pancreatic cancer pain feels like and what causes it. This article also looks at ways to manage pancreatic cancer pain, when to contact a doctor, and more.

What are the types of pancreatic pain?

Closeup of a person with their hands over their stomach.
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If you have pancreatic cancer, you may experience different types of pain over time.

Background pain

Background pain is a type of pain you can control with pain relief medication. This usually is enough to control the pain.

If you begin to experience pain between doses, your doctor may recommend adjusting the dosage or the type of medication.

Breakthrough pain

Breakthrough pain refers to episodes of severe pain that can last several minutes or hours. This type of pain usually manifests even though you are taking medications to reduce background pain.

Incident pain

Incident pain occurs during a particular activity or movement. It feels similar to breakthrough pain.

You may be able to prevent incident pain by taking fast-acting pain relief medication about 30 minutes before the activity.

Neuropathic pain

Pancreatic cancer can cause pressure on the nerves surrounding the pancreas. Because of this, nerves send messages to the brain, causing pain in that area.

Neuropathic pain usually feels like a burning, stabbing, or shooting pain.

Learn about how to describe nerve pain to your doctor.

Visceral pain

Visceral, or soft tissue, pain occurs if pancreatic cancer spreads to other internal organs, such as the bowel or liver. It may be difficult to address the area of origin of the pain.

Visceral pain can feel like a cramping sensation or squeezing internal pain.

Learn about muscle cramps.

Bone pain

If pancreatic cancer spreads to the bones, you may experience aches and bone pain. Bone pain is not as common as other types of pancreatic cancer pain.

Bone pain can feel like cramping, or it may feel like an aching or throbbing pain.

Learn about other causes of bone pain.

What causes pancreatic cancer pain?

A number of factors can make you feel pain if you have pancreatic cancer.

The cancer

Pancreatic cancer can put pressure on the surrounding nerves during its growth. This can cause abdominal or back pain.

The cancer can also cause a buildup of fluid in the stomach, causing discomfort and tenderness. If pancreatic cancer spreads to other areas of the body, pain can occur in those areas.

Learn about what causes pancreatic cancer.

Digestive issues

The pancreas produces enzymes that help break down and digest the food you eat.

Pancreatic cancer can affect the work of the pancreas, causing bloating, gas, and stomach pain or discomfort.

Learn more about stomach problems.

Cancer treatment

A surgical procedure such as the installation of a stent can cause pain or discomfort for a few weeks after surgery.

If you undergo chemotherapy, you may also experience pain because of its side effects. Chemotherapy is one of the main treatments for pancreatic cancer.

Possible side effects of chemotherapy include:

Learn about treatment options for pancreatic cancer.

Your mental well-being can also play an important role in the way you feel pain. Your doctor can help you better manage the mental and physical symptoms of cancer.

How do I manage pancreatic cancer pain?

Depending on the cause and type of pain you experience, your doctor may recommend different types of medications. In some cases, your doctor may suggest surgery.

The following table lists potential treatments to help manage the different types of pancreatic cancer pain.

Type of painTreatment
Backgroundpain relief medication
Breakthroughfast-acting opioid pain relief medication, typically starting with mild opioids; stronger opioids if the pain continues
Incidentfast-acting pain relief medication, taken 20–30 minutes before the activity
Neuropathicopioid medications; antiepileptic agents, such as gabapentin and pregabalin; nerve blocks, in the most severe cases; cannabis, as suggested in some studies
Visceralpain relief medication; antispasmodic drugs, to relax the muscles in the bowels
Bonecorticosteroids

What are the other symptoms of pancreatic cancer?

Alongside pain, you may also experience other symptoms of pancreatic cancer. This depends on the stage of the cancer and whether it has spread.

Other pancreatic cancer symptoms can include:

When should I contact a doctor?

If you experience new symptoms or pain has increased, contact your doctor. They can recommend the most effective treatment to improve symptoms and help you manage pain.

In some cases, you may need a new type of pain relief. Your doctor may also suggest adjusting the medication dosage. Always talk with your doctor before stopping a medication or changing its dosage.

This cancer appointment guide can help you prepare for your appointment.

How do doctors diagnose the cause of pancreatic cancer pain?

Doctors can diagnose the cause of pancreatic cancer pain by performing tests. The tests help them determine the stage of cancer and if it has spread to other areas.

The diagnosis may begin with your doctor performing a physical examination. They may also collect a blood sample to check the levels of bilirubin and other enzymes.

Your doctor may then order imaging tests to gain a better picture of your condition. These tests can include:

  • CT scan
  • MRI scan
  • PET-CT scan
  • ultrasound scan
  • endoscopic ultrasound (EUS)
  • endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP)
  • magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography (MRCP)

Your doctor will recommend the most effective treatment for managing pain and the other potential symptoms of cancer.

Learn about how doctors diagnose pancreatic cancer.

Summary

Pancreatic cancer pain can feel different from person to person. The pain can depend on the stage of cancer, whether it has spread, and the type of pain.

Pain from pancreatic cancer can feel like a stabbing or burning pain in the abdominal area or the back. The pain may also feel like a cramping or squeezing sensation.

Your doctor may prescribe pain relief medication to help reduce the pain. In some cases, they may recommend surgery.

If you have pancreatic cancer and experience a new symptom or type of pain, contact your doctor. They will discuss with you the most effective treatment to manage the pain.

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Medical Reviewer: Faith Selchick, DNP, AOCNP
Last Review Date: 2023 Jan 24
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