Cannabis and Alternative Therapies for Palliative Care: A Quick Reference

Alternaleaf Team
Written by
Alternaleaf Team
Feb 24, 2023
Last updated:
Nov 17, 2023

Talking about palliative care can be difficult. Palliative care is a patient-centred approach to care designed to alleviate suffering and improve the quality of life for patients diagnosed with a progressive or advanced disease, which has little or no prospect of cure and who are expected to pass away as a result of their illness.

Patients suffering from a  wide range of conditions can benefit from a thoughtful approach to palliative care. And the care itself looks different for every person, taking into account their physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual needs. Quality care means giving patients the correct information, allowing them to make an informed choice in determining the best course of action in their health and well-being decisions.

Medical cannabis can provide some benefit for symptom control in patients with terminal conditions who are receiving palliative care; we'd like to help you understand how these products might be helpful.

What Is Palliative Care?

Multiple health practitioners or allied health professionals can provide palliative care. It can be defined as any treatment to ease pain or other symptoms caused by a life-limiting, or terminal illness.

Palliative care treatments are not provided to cure or treat an illness, although sometimes active treatments like chemotherapy may be provided alongside palliation therapies.

Palliative care can be accessed at any stage of a serious illness to reduce pain and improve your overall well-being.

Transitioning from active treatment to palliative care can be a confronting and challenging time for you and your loved ones. Still, you should be reassured that a broad range of therapies and management options can help you live as fully and comfortably as possible.

Your healthcare provider team can help you determine which palliative or therapeutic treatments might be best for you and your situation.

What Conditions is Palliative Care Used For?

Palliative care can be used for a broad range of conditions among people of all ages. Some of the most common reasons for accessing palliative care include the following:

  • Cancer
  • Dementia
  • Heart disease
  • Lung disease
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Multiple sclerosis

Palliative care can be provided to patients from the time they are first diagnosed with a life-limiting illness; there is more than one stage to palliative care.

Patients may receive palliative care for a long time before they die and receive it at the same time as they receive treatment, all aimed at improving quality of life and symptom control.

How is Palliative Care Administered?

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Palliative care is a holistic approach, often including care for pain, sleep, loss of appetite, and more.

Palliative care is given at home, hospital, aged-care home, or hospice, depending on the patient’s needs. Typically, a care team will help patients plan their palliative care. The team could include your GP, pastoral care, a community nurse, specialist doctors, social workers, counsellors, and volunteers.

Treatments for Palliative Care

Palliative care aims to ease adverse symptoms of chronic, life-limiting or terminal illnesses. For many people, that means decreasing pain so they can continue to engage in their daily activities. Other symptoms that may need to be managed include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Difficulty breathing

A wide range of treatments is included in palliative care. Some of these are conventional medicines, while others are complementary treatments. All good palliative care is based on evidence that it can reduce symptoms and improve quality of life.

Painkillers for Palliative Care

Conventional medicines can be used to manage pain. Drugs such as opioids and NSAIDs are often prescribed in palliative care when patients have severe pain.

Recently, there’s been interest in medical cannabis and palliative care. Patients seek medicinal cannabis as they find the side effects of these medications intolerable in large doses. Some side effects may mimic or worsen other symptoms, such as nausea and vomiting. Evidence is emerging that medicinal cannabis could help alleviate pain associated with life-limiting illnesses such as cancer pain, spasticity, neuropathic and visceral pain.

Massage and Touch Therapy

Massage and other forms of touch therapy are commonly included in palliative care plans. With a specially trained massage therapist, massage can help relieve muscle pain and spasms from various conditions. Specialists will be able to work with your situation safely.

Massage therapy also offers human touch and connection, which is vital for patients with challenging chronic conditions.

Counselling and Talk Therapy

Mental health support is vital to palliative care. Having a chronic or life-limiting illness can be very distressing. Many patients experience ongoing depression and anxiety due to their condition, symptoms, and prognosis.

Access to skilled counsellors and other talk therapists can make a huge difference. A counsellor can help you make sense of your condition, develop strategies for managing mental health challenges, teach relaxation and breathing strategies, and help you and your family process grief.


Getting the right healthy foods and drinks can be challenging for many palliative care patients. Many conditions and medications can cause loss of appetite, nausea, or difficulty swallowing, so access to nutritional guidance and support can be essential.

Nutritionists can help you plan a diet that will support your health, which may look very different from your typical diet before you were ill. For example, many patients need a much higher protein intake while they’re sick, as the body works hard to heal.

Complementary Therapies Are Vital for Palliative Care

Palliative care is a unique type of medicine focused on the comfort, well-being and quality of life of patients with serious illnesses.

Thanks to conventional and complementary treatments, patients with a life-limiting or terminal diagnosis can still enjoy their life as much as possible and stay in control of decisions around their health.

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