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Managing Pain and Symptoms in End-of-Life Patients

Palliative Care

Updated 06-01-2024

Managing Pain and Symptoms in End-of-Life Patients

Palliative care forms a critical segment of healthcare, especially when dealing with life-limiting illnesses. Adequate management of pain and symptoms in end-of-life patients is not just a professional obligation for healthcare providers but a moral one as well. It represents the core of compassionate care where the aim is not to extend life unnecessarily, but to ensure the quality of life is as optimal as possible during a person’s final days.

Holistic Approach to Pain Management

The complexity of pain in end-of-life care goes beyond physical discomfort and extends into emotional and spiritual domains. It requires a multidisciplinary team effort to assess and treat pain efficiently. Multi-modal analgesia is often recommended, employing both pharmacologic and non-pharmacologic interventions. The World Health Organisation's (WHO) analgesic ladder provides a framework for approaching pain management in a stepwise fashion. Initially, non-opioids with or without adjuvant therapies are used, progressing to opioids for moderate to severe pain, always tailoring the regimen to the individual patient’s needs.

Pharmacologic Interventions

Opioids remain the cornerstone of managing severe pain in palliative care. Medications such as morphine, oxycodone, and fentanyl are frequently preferred for their effectiveness. However, prescribers must be vigilant in monitoring for side effects and in titrating dosages to achieve the desired analgesic effect without undue burden on patients.

Adjuvant therapies such as tricyclic antidepressants, anticonvulsants, or corticosteroids may be beneficial for certain types of pain, like neuropathic pain or pain related to inflammation, respectively. It's imperative to understand the unique pharmacodynamics and potential interactions these medications may have in the complex health matrix of an end-of-life patient.

Non-Pharmacologic Interventions

Complementary therapies like massage, acupuncture, and even simple measures such as repositioning or the application of heat or cold can provide significant relief. Psychological support through counselling or the provision of a calm and supportive environment can highlight the importance of addressing psychological suffering that often accompanies physical pain.

Managing Common Symptoms

In the advanced stages of terminal illness, patients may present with a multitude of symptoms other than pain. Dyspnoea, nausea, constipation, delirium, and fatigue are among the common distressing symptoms. Each requires a careful and patient-specific approach.


Breathlessness can be terrifying for patients and distressing for family members to witness. Aside from optimising underlying medical conditions, treatments may include pharmacologic support with opioids, anxiolytics, and non-pharmacologic interventions like fan therapy, positioning strategies, and relaxation techniques.

Nausea and Vomiting

With multiple possible aetiologies, antiemetic treatment should be based on the likely underlying cause but may include a trial of medications such as metoclopramide, haloperidol, or ondansetron. Non-pharmacological interventions like dietary modifications and aromatherapy may serve as adjunct therapies.


Often overlooked, constipation can cause significant discomfort. A proactive approach using stool softeners, stimulant laxatives, and enemas can prevent severe complications. Adequate hydration and dietary fibre, within the patient's tolerance levels, should not be neglected.


Delirium complicates care and impacts the quality of life. Identifying reversible causes is fundamental. Beyond that, management may include environmental modifications to reduce sensory overload, medications such as haloperidol or risperidone, and ensuring that patients have access to familiar objects and the presence of family when possible.


Energy conservation techniques and the management of contributing factors like anaemia or sleep disturbances are primary strategies.

Ethical Considerations in End-of-Life Care

Ethical issues such as the patient’s autonomy, the potential for opioid-induced sedation, and the family's role in decision-making must be navigated with finesse and open communication. Legal frameworks exist across Australia to safeguard the rights and dignity of terminally ill individuals, and healthcare professionals must operate within these contexts.


The management of pain and symptoms in end-of-life patients demands a blend of scientific knowledge, ethical understanding, and deep compassion. It necessitates an individualised approach where patients and their families are actively involved in decision-making. Such care requires attention to detail, patience, and an accepting environment that respects the patients' values and wishes. Comprehensive pain and symptom management form the bedrock of dignified palliative care, ensuring that the end-of-life journey is as peaceful and comfortable as it can possibly be.

About the Author

Olivia is a seasoned professional with an extensive career spanning the Aged Care sector, bringing decades of experience to her role. Her comprehensive understanding of Aged Care services and practices is a testament to her dedication. Olivia’s gratitude extends to those who have generously shared their knowledge and insights with her over the years, contributing to her wealth of expertise.
Olivia’s articles reflect her commitment to practical and informative content. They skillfully combine her industry know-how with real-world insights, providing valuable resources for navigating the complexities of the Aged Care sector. Olivia stands as a reliable advocate for delivering compassionate and effective care to elderly individuals, offering her support not only to fellow caregivers and professionals but also to those seeking to gain a deeper understanding of the sector.

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