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Palliative Care: Bringing Comfort

When people hear the term palliative care, many assume that it's a treatment only for someone who is dying. But palliative care can also be used to bring physical and emotional comfort to anyone with a serious illness. Palliative care can benefit any patient at any age and any stage of his or her illness.

Nurse giving medication to patient  


Palliative care focuses on improving a patient’s quality of life by improving the symptoms of his or her illness, such as pain, shortness of breath, and difficulty sleeping. It's used with a variety of ailments, including cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, kidney failure, or congestive heart failure.

Palliative care doesn’t work to cure an illness, but it can be administered simultaneously with medical treatments. It may be given at a hospital, a long-term care facility, or even in your own home. You don’t have to give up your existing doctor to receive palliative care.

The palliative care process

A team of specialists, including doctors, nurses, pharmacists, nutritionists, and spiritual professionals, often work together to provide palliative care. This teamwork allows a number of treatment techniques to be used to relieve symptoms.

One of the most common palliative care treatments is pain management, which may be accomplished with pain-relieving medications like ibuprofen and acetaminophen or stronger drugs like morphine. Nondrug therapies, sometimes called complementary therapies, may also be part of the pain-lessening plan. These may include massage therapy, relaxation techniques, music therapy, acupuncture, and aromatherapy.

Palliative care may also involve nonmedical support for patient and family members alike. Emotional support, spiritual guidance, and help navigating the health care system may be provided. If a patient is experiencing anxiety or depression as a consequence of his or her illness, palliative care can help ease that, too.

People with serious illnesses often experience fatigue, and palliative care specialists can find ways to help restore energy and enable them to perform day-to-day tasks. For example, you might be advised to do a task, like bathing, at a time of the day when you’re at your best.  Dietary changes and a regular rest schedule might also be suggested to keep your energy up.

How to get palliative care

If you are interested in receiving palliative care for your illness, the first step is to speak with the doctor who is treating you. Be sure to explain to your health care provider what is most vital to improving your quality of life—this may be aggressive pain management, the ability to be treated at home, or something else entirely. Your doctor can refer you to a palliative care service organization. 

Most insurance plans, including Medicare and Medicaid, cover palliative care services. If you're concerned about the cost of palliative care, a social worker from the palliative care organization should be able to address any questions you have.