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What Is Palliative Care?

When you or someone you love has a serious illness, sustaining life isn't your only concern. Quality of life matters, too.

Understanding this, physicians have always tried to help chronically ill patients manage pain, stress, and other side effects caused by their conditions or treatments for those conditions. However, over the past couple decades, the medical community has begun to recognize that palliative care requires treating the whole person — mind, body, and spirit — and that requires a team approach.

So, what is palliative care? Do you or a loved one need it? And where can you get it?

Understanding Palliative Care

What is palliative care? The World Health Organization defines it as, "An approach that improves the quality of life of patients and their families facing the problems associated with life-threatening illness, through the prevention and relief of suffering by means of early identification, and impeccable assessment and treatment of pain and other problems, physical, psychosocial and spiritual."

More simply put: It's a medical specialty that focuses on making you feel better, while your other doctors focus on treating your illness.

Palliative care is typically provided by a team of specially trained doctors, nurses, social workers, nutritionists, counselors, and chaplains. They work alongside your primary doctors to provide an extra layer of specialized support.

Palliative care physicians work with you to manage pain, nausea, breathing problems, and any other life-impairing effects of your illness. They can prescribe medications but might also recommend holistic therapies, such as meditation, acupuncture, or basic lifestyle changes. They spend time talking to you and your family about your illness, which can alleviate anxiety about what comes next while also preparing you to make informed health care decisions. Meanwhile, counselors and chaplains help you and your family manage stress, fear, depression, and other psychological or spiritual concerns associated with your illness.

Where to Get Palliative Care

People often confuse palliative care with end-of-life care, such as hospice. Because hospice organizations only treat patients who are no longer seeking a cure, they only provide palliative care.

However, you can receive palliative care at any point after being diagnosed with a serious illness, and many physicians encourage patients to start sooner rather than later. Because stress and pain take a toll on your body, making it harder to heal, early intervention can lead to better quality of life and even improve your prognosis.

Most hospitals now employ palliative care teams that treat people living with cancer, cardiac diseases, chronic lung disease, AIDS, Alzheimer's, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and many other serious, complex, and chronic illnesses. Some home health organizations also offer palliative care services.

If you or someone you love could benefit from palliative care, ask your doctor about the options available in your community.

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