Leukemia Bone Pain: Why it Happens and How to Find Relief

Leukemia is a cancer of the blood and bone marrow. While it often develops with no symptoms, some people report experiencing bone pain and even weakness or fractures.

Find out why bone pain is associated with leukemia, which types of leukemia it’s most common with, and what you can do to soothe this symptom.

Why do people with leukemia experience bone pain?

Leukemia is a type of cancer that affects primarily white blood cells and bone marrow. As cancer cells multiply — particularly in bone marrow — healthy cells are crowded out and become outnumbered by cancer cells. When this happens, the bone marrow expands and can put pressure on your nerves.

An abundance of cancer cells can also create masses that put pressure on bony structures. This can result in bone pain, weakness, and even fractures.

There are four main types of leukemia:

  • acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL)
  • acute myeloid leukemia (AML)
  • chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL)
  • chronic myeloid leukemia (CML)

Bone pain is more common in lymphocytic cancers than myeloid cancers. In fact, about a quarter of all people diagnosed with ALL experience bone pain in the early stage of the disease.

What does leukemia bone pain feel like?

Bone pain that begins before a leukemia diagnosis can be brushed off as growing pains or from an injury or strain. The types of pain commonly reported among people with leukemia-related bone pain include:

  • sharp pains
  • dull aches
  • present in one or more bones at the same time
  • pain that continues regardless of whether you’re moving or resting

Bone pain caused by leukemia is most commonly reported in large and long bones, because these contain larger stores of bone marrow. Some examples include:

  • long bones in the arms
  • long bones in the legs
  • ribs
  • sternum
  • hips
  • shoulders

Joint pain and swelling may also occur, but these symptoms usually develop later on with leukemia. Other leukemia symptoms that may accompany bone pain include:

  • swollen lymph nodes
  • fatigue
  • anemia
  • frequent infections
  • easy bleeding, like from the gums or nosebleeds
  • bruising
  • fractured or broken bones
  • weakness
  • abdominal swelling, which can be due to an enlarged spleen
  • sweating, especially at night
  • chills
  • weight loss

What does bone pain mean about the stage of leukemia?

If you develop bone pain, this doesn’t mean your cancer is getting worse. Bone pain is a fairly common symptom of leukemia because of they way the cancer forms inside your body.

However, bone pain can also be related to other conditions that develop as a result of your cancer or even your treatments. Examples include:

  • bone marrow biopsy
  • bone marrow aspiration
  • chemotherapy
  • radiation therapy
  • reduced blood flow, causing thrombocythemia
  • inflammatory joint conditions like gout that are brought on by your cancer

How can you treat leukemia bone pain?

A healthcare professional can offer a variety of ways to manage your bone pain and other discomfort related to leukemia. Palliative care specialists can be helpful in managing your pain and symptoms alongside your treatment.

Below are some pharmacologic options for leukemia-related bone pain and other symptoms:

  • nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
  • acetaminophen
  • prescription pain medications like opioids
  • antidepressant medications
  • anticonvulsant drugs
  • nerve blocks
  • corticosteroids
  • anesthetics
  • topical creams
  • skin patches
  • surgery

In addition to traditional medications, here are some complementary treatment ideas to soothe bone pain:

  • therapy and counseling
  • support groups
  • stress management
  • massage
  • exercise
  • acupuncture
  • myofascial therapy
  • yoga
  • meditation
  • hypnosis
  • physical therapy
  • rehabilitation
  • transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS)

Be sure to discuss how you are feeling — both physically and emotionally — with your cancer care team. Make sure you have a support system in place and that they’re being supported, too.

If you need helping coping with your care or diagnosis, ask your doctor for help or a referral to a community organization.

The takeaway

Leukemia is a type of cancer that affects the blood and bone marrow. As cancer cells multiply, your bone marrow expands, causing pain. Cancer treatments like radiation and bone marrow biopsies can make the pain even worse.

Talk with your oncologist about medications you can take with your leukemia treatment regimen, and try some complementary strategies like yoga, acupuncture, and meditation.

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