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Scandinavian Journal of Pain

Official Journal of the Scandinavian Association for the Study of Pain

Editor-in-Chief: Werner, Mads

CiteScore 2018: 0.85

SCImago Journal Rank (SJR) 2018: 0.494
Source Normalized Impact per Paper (SNIP) 2018: 0.427

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Volume 16, Issue 1


Spinal analgesia for severe cancer pain: A retrospective analysis of 60 patients

Lauri Kiehelä
  • Corresponding author
  • Division of Pain Medicine, Department of Anaesthesiology, Intensive Care and Pain Medicine, University of Helsinki and Helsinki University Hospital, Helsinki, Finland
  • Email
  • Other articles by this author:
  • De Gruyter OnlineGoogle Scholar
/ Katri Hamunen
  • Division of Pain Medicine, Department of Anaesthesiology, Intensive Care and Pain Medicine, University of Helsinki and Helsinki University Hospital, Helsinki, Finland
  • Other articles by this author:
  • De Gruyter OnlineGoogle Scholar
/ Tarja Heiskanen
  • Division of Pain Medicine, Department of Anaesthesiology, Intensive Care and Pain Medicine, University of Helsinki and Helsinki University Hospital, Helsinki, Finland
  • Other articles by this author:
  • De Gruyter OnlineGoogle Scholar
Published Online: 2017-07-01 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sjpain.2017.04.073


Background and aims

Pain is highly prevalent in advanced cancer, and in some patients refractory to conventional opioid treatment. For these patients, invasive methods of pain relief should be considered. Spinal administration of opioids has been shown to be an effective alternative in refractory cancer pain. The aim of this retrospective study was to collect information on the use of spinal analgesia for cancer pain in Helsinki University Hospital.


A retrospective patient chart study of all cancer patients with spinal analgesia, either intrathecal or epidural, in a single academic center during a five year period (n = 60).


Forty-four patients were treated with intrathecal (IT) and sixteen with epidural (EP) technique. The most common indication for spinal analgesia was pain refractory to systemic analgesics. Good analgesia was achieved in 50% and 70% of the patients in the EP and IT groups, respectively. The median daily systemic opioid doses prior to spinal analgesia were 874.5 mg and 730.5 mg as oral morphine equivalents in the IT and EP groups, respectively. The systemic opioid could be discontinued or significantly reduced in 83% of the patients. Morphine was used in all IT infusions and most EP infusions, mostly combined with bupivacaine 10mg (IT) or 66mg (EP). The median starting doses of morphine were 3 mg/day (IT) and 19 mg/day (EP) and were increased during titration 27% to 3.8 mg/day (IT) and 91% to 36.2 mg/day (EP). Clonidine (median 0.015 mg/day IT and 0.15 mg/day EP) and/or ketamine were used as adjuvants. The average titration time to stable analgesia was 7–9 days. Numbness in lower limbs was reported by 24% of the IT group. On average, catheters were placed 98 and 61 days before death in IT and EP groups, respectively. No serious complications occurred. Catheter dislocation occurred in 27% of all sixty patients during follow-up. Treatment was discontinued in 10 patients because of catheter dislocation (n =7) or local infection (n = 3).

Conclusions and implications

Spinal administration of opioids is a safe and effective method of pain management in patients with severe cancer pain and can greatly reduce the need of systemic opioids. We are implementing closer collaboration with oncologists to provide spinal analgesia to more patients and earlier to reduce suffering. Catheter dislocation led to discontinuation of spinal analgesia in 17% of the patients and we are evaluating new ways to prevent catheter dislocation. The initial median spinal opioid dose was too low in both groups, and we are now using higher initial doses. A common adverse effect was numbness of the lower limbs, regardless of the relatively low doses of spinal bupivacaine. We now use lower doses and introduce the intrathecal catheter higher at L1–2 to reduce motor blockade at the level of conus.

As an initial intrathecal infusions we suggest: morphine dose calculated using an oral to intrathecal ratio of 1:100 (unless the patient is elderly or already drowsy), clonidine dose 30μg/day and bupivacaine dose 7.5 mg/day.

Keywords: Refractory cancer pain; Spinal opioids; Intrathecal pain management


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About the article

Itämerenkatu 16 A 13, 00180 Helsinki, Finland.

Received: 2017-03-01

Revised: 2017-04-04

Accepted: 2017-04-30

Published Online: 2017-07-01

Published in Print: 2017-07-01

Ethical issues: As a retrospective study, no informed consent was asked. The study was approved by the Finnish Ministry of Social Affairs and Health.

Conflict of interest: The authors have no conflict of interest concerning the study, nor any financial interests.

Citation Information: Scandinavian Journal of Pain, Volume 16, Issue 1, Pages 140–145, ISSN (Online) 1877-8879, ISSN (Print) 1877-8860, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sjpain.2017.04.073.

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