What are the Different Types of Palliative Treatments?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Palliative treatments endeavor to relieve suffering, without being a cure for a condition. Palliative care is defined differently in Western Europe and Canada than it is in the US. In the first two, it’s often most linked to care for illnesses that can’t be cured or associated with hospice interventions; in the US, types of palliative treatment tend to refer to any medical intervention that improves comfort but doesn’t provide a cure, and may be differentiated from end of life care. This fine distinction may change the definitions of palliative treatment in a given location.

Palliative treatments, like chemotherapy, help to improve a late stage cancer patient's quality of life.
Palliative treatments, like chemotherapy, help to improve a late stage cancer patient's quality of life.

Palliative care isn’t always end of life care. Some palliative treatments may extend life for decades. For example, children born with single ventricle hearts cannot have this defect “cured,” unless they undergo a heart transplant. Since heart transplantation isn’t always the best or most available option, many kids undergo a surgery called the Fontan, which reroutes the circulation of the heart.

Palliative treatments are sometimes chosen over curative treatment.
Palliative treatments are sometimes chosen over curative treatment.

The Fontan is palliative because it doesn’t cure the underlying defects. It can improve heart function for many years, delaying the need for transplant until kids are in their twenties, thirties or older. Thus, one of the types of palliative treatment is any kind of surgery to improve function, without curing a condition.

Other palliative treatments improve symptom expression without cure. Giving medication to a person with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder can help reduce symptoms and improve quality of life, but these diseases don’t get away. Alternately, taking medicines to treat ongoing illnesses like gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), HIV, or thyroid disorder, may do nothing to address causes of these illnesses, and in absence of the medication, these diseases will worsen. The medication is still vital because these diseases will worsen and create discomfort without it.

Medication or interventions can be palliative treatments that are undertaken with curative treatment. A cancer patient can undergo chemotherapy and surgery designed to rid the body of cancer. Auxiliary treatments like medicine to control nausea aren’t curative, but promote patient comfort, and are thus considered palliative. Pain medication given after any surgery is palliative, too. In end of life care or during any serious illness, some treatments are always palliative, such as massage therapy, psychotherapy, or others because they are directed at improving comfort instead of a cure.

Sometimes, palliative treatments are chosen over a curative treatment. Older patients might not be able to undergo treatments or surgeries that can cure a condition. Radiation therapy, for instance, may shrink tumors but not eradicate them and might be a choice for some patients who couldn’t survive more rigorous treatments. This is also palliative, can extend life, and may promote comfort.

Certainly all end of life or hospice treatments are arguably palliative treatments, even if the U.S. tries to differentiate them. These aim at supporting a person who is dying and that person’s family. They include things like pain management, basic care of a person’s body functions, and therapy support to the dying person and his or her caretakers.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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