Mayo Clinic Health Library

Palliative care: Symptom relief during illness

Updated: 01-10-2013

If you or a loved one has a serious or life-threatening illness, you might have thought about palliative care. To understand palliative care and how it can help relieve pain and improve quality of life, consider the following questions.

What is palliative care?

Palliative care is a multidisciplinary medical specialty that aims to improve quality of life for people who have serious or life-threatening illnesses. Palliative care takes into account the person's emotional, physical and spiritual needs and goals — as well as the needs of his or her family.

Palliative care doesn't replace primary medical treatment. Instead, palliative care is provided in conjunction with all other medical treatment.

How is palliative care different from hospice?

Palliative care is available at any time during a serious or life-threatening illness, while hospice care is available only at the end of life — when curative or life-prolonging treatments have been stopped. You don't have to be in hospice to receive palliative care.

Who can benefit from palliative care?

Anyone who has a serious or life-threatening illness can benefit from palliative care, either to treat symptoms of the disease, such as pain or shortness of breath, or to ease the side effects of treatment, such as fatigue or nausea.

Palliative care may be a good option for someone with a serious illness who needs help:

  • Managing pain or other symptoms
  • Understanding and coping with his or her condition
  • Navigating the health care system

How does palliative care work?

Palliative care can be provided throughout treatment for a serious illness — whether you or your loved one is being treated on an outpatient basis or in a hospital or a nursing home. This type of treatment can be provided by various specialists, including doctors, nurses, social workers, psychologists, counselors, chaplains, registered dietitians, pharmacists and rehabilitation specialists.

A palliative care specialist works with the primary care doctor and a team of other health care professionals to create a treatment plan that eases symptoms, relieves pain, addresses spiritual and psychological concerns, and helps maintain dignity and comfort.

A palliative care specialist can also help you or your loved one communicate with doctors and family members and create a smooth transition between the hospital and home care or nursing facilities. The palliative care team will educate you and your family members about what to expect and schedule routine meetings to discuss ongoing care throughout the course of your illness.

What are some real-life examples of palliative care?

Here's one example of how palliative care works: You have a history of heart failure and are increasingly short of breath, which makes it hard for you to do even simple chores around the house. You live at home with a partner who also has health problems. You find that getting all of the care you and your partner need is becoming more difficult, and you're not sure how to plan for the future. This has been stressful for you and your family physically, psychologically, spiritually and financially.

Your primary care doctor suggests that you consider palliative care and explains that a palliative care team will work with you to determine how to ease your symptoms and improve your quality of life.

How can I learn more about palliative care?

If you're interested in obtaining palliative care for yourself or a loved one, ask your doctor or your loved one's doctor about palliative care options and if a program is available in your area.

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