Cancer pain physiology

Sarah Falk, Kirsty Bannister, Anthony H. Dickenson*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

34 Citations (Scopus)


Mechanisms of inflammatory and neuropathic pains have been elucidated and translated to patient care by the use of animal models of these pain states. Cancer pain has lagged behind since early animal models of cancer-induced bone pain were based on the systemic injection of carcinoma cells. This precluded systematic investigation of specific neuronal and pharmacological alterations that occur in cancer-induced bone pain. In 1999, Schwei et al. described a murine model of cancer-induced bone pain that paralleled the clinical condition in terms of pain development and bone destruction, confined to the mouse femur. This model prompted related approaches, and we can now state that cancer pain may include elements of inflammatory and neuropathic pains but also unique changes in sensory processing. Cancer-induced bone pain results in progressive bone destruction, elevated osteoclast activity and distinctive nocifensive behaviours (indicating the triad of ongoing, spontaneous and movement-induced hyperalgesia). In addition, cancer cells induce an inflammatory infiltrate and release growth factors, cytokines, interleukins, chemokines, prostanoids and endothelins, resulting in a reduction of pH to below 5 and direct deformation of primary afferents within bone. These peripheral changes, in turn, drive hypersensitivity of spinal cord sensory neurons, many of which project to the parts of the brain involved in the emotional response to pain. Within the spinal cord, a unique neuronal function reorganization within segments of the dorsal horn of the spinal cord receiving nociceptive input from the bone are discussed. Changes in certain neurotransmitters implicated in brain modulation of spinal function are also altered with implications for the affective components of cancer pain. Treatments are described in terms of mechanistic insights and in the case of opioids, which modulate pain transmission at spinal and supraspinal sites, their use can be compromised by opioid-induced hyperalgesia. We discuss evidence for how this comes about and how it may be treated.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)154-162
Number of pages9
JournalBritish Journal of Pain
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2014


  • Cancer pain
  • Cancer-induced bone pain
  • Opioid-induced hyperalgesia
  • Peripheral and central pain mechanisms
  • Spinal modulation


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