Biologic mechanisms of oral cancer pain and implications for clinical therapy

J Dent Res. 2012 May;91(5):447-53. doi: 10.1177/0022034511424156. Epub 2011 Oct 4.


Cancer pain is an ever-present public health concern. With innovations in treatment, cancer patients are surviving longer, but uncontrollable pain creates a poor quality of life for these patients. Oral cancer is unique in that it causes intense pain at the primary site and significantly impairs speech, swallowing, and masticatory functions. We propose that oral cancer pain has underlying biologic mechanisms that are generated within the cancer microenvironment. A comprehensive understanding of key mediators that control cross-talk between the cancer and peripheral nervous system, and possible interventions, underlies effective cancer pain management. The purpose of this review is to explore the current studies on oral cancer pain and their implications in clinical management for cancer pain in general. Furthermore, we will explore the endogenous opioid systems and novel cancer pain therapeutics that target these systems, which could solve the issue of opiate tolerance and improve quality of life in oral cancer patients.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Analgesics, Opioid / pharmacology
  • Animals
  • Carcinoma, Squamous Cell / complications
  • Carcinoma, Squamous Cell / physiopathology*
  • Drug Tolerance / physiology
  • Endothelin-1 / physiology
  • Facial Pain / drug therapy
  • Facial Pain / etiology*
  • Facial Pain / physiopathology
  • Humans
  • Mouth Neoplasms / complications
  • Mouth Neoplasms / physiopathology*
  • Nerve Growth Factor / physiology
  • Nociceptors / physiology
  • Opioid Peptides / genetics
  • Opioid Peptides / physiology
  • Opioid Peptides / therapeutic use
  • Pain Management / methods
  • Pain, Intractable / drug therapy
  • Pain, Intractable / etiology*
  • Pain, Intractable / physiopathology
  • Palliative Care
  • Quality of Life
  • Receptors, Proteinase-Activated / physiology


  • Analgesics, Opioid
  • Endothelin-1
  • Opioid Peptides
  • Receptors, Proteinase-Activated
  • Nerve Growth Factor