Pain Medication at Home: Controlling Pain

Get useful techniques for managing your pain along with easy-to-use techniques for taking pills, liquid medications or inserting suppositories.

Telling your doctor that the pain medication "doesn't work" is the first step in taking control; but giving the doctor some specific details will help in finding a solution. The more information you can give your doctor, the better. Try asking yourself these questions:

  • What does the pain feel like? Is it sharp, dull, intermittent, stabbing?
  • Where is the pain?
  • What makes the pain go away? Changing positions? A different activity? Medication? A back rub? A hot bath?
  • How long does it take my medicine to start working?
  • How long does the relief last?
  • Does the pain interrupt my sleep?
  • Have I noticed any side effects?

You can write down the answers before your next visit with the doctor, and even keep a daily or hourly record. This will present the information in a clear form, and help the doctor help you.

As you know, medications come in different forms: pills, liquids, rectal suppositories, and injections. Before you leave the hospital, you should ask your physician about the type of medication you will be taking home with you. Then you must learn now to take the medicine, or your family helpers must learn how to give it to you.

Usually your doctor will send you home with the same pain medication you have been taking in the hospital. If you will be taking a different type, your doctor will probably have started you on it before you are sent home, to see how well it works and what side effects it may have on you. It is better to have this "trial" in the hospital. There you can be observed by the nursing staff, and become secure with the medicine.

Types of Medications

If you will be taking pills or tablets home with you, ask the nurse for a stack of plastic medicine cups. These are handy for setting out each dose, especially those you may have to take through the night.

If you have difficulty swallowing, pills may be crushed by placing them in a plastic bag and gently crushing them with a spoon. Add the crushed pills to a spoonful of soft food, such as custard, applesauce, or cereal. You may also dissolve the crushed mixture in a small amount of water or juice. Don't use too much liquid, though, as you may not be able to finish it and get all of your medication.

Small plastic cups are also handy for taking liquid medications. Some have markings on the side to let you measure out the correct amount. Liquid medications can be mixed with juices to make them more palatable.

Suppositories for Pain

Rectal suppositories are easy to use. Simply remove the foil wrapper, lubricate the tip with K-Y Jelly® or water, and insert it into the rectum using your index finger. It must be pushed up past the rectal sphincter, or muscle, usually as far as your finger will reach.

Injections for Pain

Injections are often frightening to patients and their families. Many people dislike them and are horrified by the thought of giving one to themselves or to someone they love. Any nurse will tell you how nervous she felt when giving her first injection. But keep in mind that injections give many patients excellent relief from their pain.

The technique of giving an injection is easy to learn if you give it a chance (and is explained clearly in The Steps of Giving an Injection). You will learn how to measure the medication and draw it into the syringe; how to choose the right spot for an injection; and how to prepare the skin and inject the medication. Arrange to have someone in your family, or the person who will be caring for you at home read this section as well. It is important that someone else knows the technique; you should not have to worry about who will be giving you injections at home.

You and the others who will be responsible for your injections will need practice before you feel able to give a shot safely and comfortably. After you have practiced, perhaps on an orange, have a nurse help you with your first "real" injection. Remember, you can learn to give an injection, even to yourself! Knowing that you can give a shot will give you confidence that you can control pain.

Pain medications are injected just below the outer skin (subcutaneously) or deep into the muscle tissue (intramuscularly). Generally speaking, medications which are irritating to the skin or which are designed to act quickly are injected intramuscularly. Non-irritating medications are often injected subcutaneously.

Choosing the correct place for an injection is an important decision, and will be made by your nurse or physician. He or she will advise you of the best place for each of your injections.

Read The Steps of Giving an Injection


Editor's Note: Adapted from A Comprehensive Guide for Cancer Patients and Their Families. Bull Publishing Company: Palo Alto, CA, 1980. Selection authored by Lizabeth Light, BSN.


Disclaimer:, Gilbert Guide, Mount Zion Hospital & Medical Center, Marshall Hale Memorial Hospital and The San Francisco Regional Cancer Foundation do hereby disclaim any and all liability for any bodily injury, death or damage to property resulting from, in whole or in part, or in any way connected with the use by any individual in the hospital-based home care program known as "SENIORS AT HOME."

Ernest Rosenbaum

Ernest Rosenbaum, MD, is an oncologist affiliated with Stanford University and with the Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of California, San Francisco, where he has developed protocols for supportive care and clinical practices. See full bio