Contrary to a clinical aphorism that early head and neck cancer is painless, we show that patients who develop head and neck cancer experience significant pain at the time of initial diagnosis. We compared orofacial pain sensitivity in groups of patients with normal oral mucosa, oral precancer, and newly diagnosed oral cancer. The University of California San Francisco Oral Cancer Pain Questionnaire was administered to these patients at their initial visit, before being prescribed analgesics for pain and before any treatment. In contrast to those with biopsy-proven normal oral mucosa and oral precancer, only oral cancer patients reported significant levels of spontaneous pain and functional restriction from pain. Moreover, oral cancer patients experienced significantly higher function-related, rather than spontaneous, pain qualities. These findings suggest an important predictor for the transition from oral precancer to cancer may be the onset of orofacial pain that is exacerbated during function. Screening patients who have new-onset orofacial pain may lead to a diagnosis of early resectable head and neck cancer and may improve quality of life and survival for head and neck cancer patients.
Copyright © 2011 International Association for the Study of Pain. Published by Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.