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Syringe drivers

You might have been given a syringe driver, to help control pain, sickness, agitation or fits. A syringe driver helps reduce symptoms by delivering a steady flow of injected medication continuously under the skin. It’s sometimes called a continuous subcutaneous infusion.

Syringe drivers are a very reliable way to control symptoms. It should give you a sense of reassurance and comfort. Using one can be an alternative to having regular, repeated injections, which can restrict what you can do and where you can go.

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Using a syringe driver is a very reliable method of symptom control. It should give you a sense of reassurance and comfort. Using one can be an alternative to having regular, repeated injections, which can restrict what you can do and where you can go.

About syringe drivers

A syringe driver is a small, battery-powered pump that delivers medication through a soft plastic tube, into a syringe with a needle which is placed just under the skin. This is generally the skin on the arm, leg, abdomen, or it could be somewhere else on the body. The continuous dose of medication is used to treat symptoms such as:

  • pain
  • vomiting
  • seizures
  • agitation

Your syringe driver will have an inbuilt computer and a small screen. It calculates the rate at which the medication you’ve been prescribed should be given and displays this on the screen. The driver display will alert you if there are any blockages or leaks. Blockages can happen if you lie on one of the tubes, for example.

The syringe driver makes a slight whirring noise when it’s on. This is normal and means that it’s working properly.

Being attached to a syringe driver shouldn’t make you less mobile. They’re portable and can be clipped onto your clothing or a bag, so that you can move around as normal.

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Why syringe drivers are used

Your nurse or doctor will explain to you why it’s being used and answer your questions. Syringe drivers are used, for example, when:

  • there’s a lot of severe pain, and a regular flow of medication is needed for enough
    pain relief
  • it’s difficult to swallow tablets or liquid because of a sore or dry mouth
  • you’re feeling weak
  • you’re vomiting or feel nauseous 
  • you’re agitated or distressed
  • you have respiratory secretions (liquid discharge from your breathing)

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Setting up and checking a syringe driver

Your syringe driver will be set up for you by your district nurse, a Marie Curie Nurse, or a doctor. The syringe driver is usually set to dispense your medication for 24 hours. It will be changed or topped up each day by your nurse.

Tell your nurse or doctor about your symptoms, so that they can check how well the medicine is working and make any adjustments that might be needed.

Your nurse will also check that the syringe driver is working properly. Syringe drivers are easy to use and unlikely to cause any problems.

You or your carer can check the syringe driver on a regular basis too. Look out for any changes in the area around the needle – like skin irritation, redness or discomfort – and keep the syringe driver and the area around the needle clean and dry. 

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Taking care when using a syringe driver

In general, syringe drivers are reliable and don’t need a lot of care, but it’s important to:

  • avoid dropping the syringe driver
  • keep the syringe driver and area around the needle dry
  • look out for signs of redness or discomfort where the needle meets the skin
  • keep the syringe driver dry when washing or bathing – if you drop in into water contact your nurse or doctor 

If it stops working

If the device stops working, don't worry as the effect of the medication will last for a while. Call your Marie Curie Nurse, district nurse or doctor as soon as possible.

If the alarm goes off

Let your nurse know if the syringe driver alarm goes off as this may mean there is a problem, or it may just need a new battery. Your nurse will give you batteries and you should be left with a spare.

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Types of medication

Syringe drivers are used for the following types of medication.

Pain relief

Morphine and diamorphine (a water soluble form of morphine) are used for pain relief. If you’re not responding well to this, other drugs may be used. Read our information about pain relief for more.

Nausea and vomiting

Anti-sickness or anti-emetic drugs are used to treat vomiting and nausea, like cyclizine (Valoid®), haloperidol (Haldol Decanoate®), metoclopramide (Maxolon®), levomepromazine (Nozinan®). For more information see Feeling sick and vomiting.

Sedation

Midazolam(Hypnovel®) is the sedative used most often in palliative care. Because it works quickly and leaves the system after a short time, it can be used for someone who is distressed in the short term. It’s used in a syringe driver when a regular dose of medication is needed over the day to help anxiety or relieve distress.

Secretions

Hyoscine hydrobromide is used to ease secretions (fluid discharge) from the lungs, but it can cause a dry mouth.

Anti-spasmodic

Hyoscine butylbromide (Buscopan®) is used for colic and as a sedative, but it can cause a dry mouth.

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This content is provided for general information purposes only. It's not medical, financial, legal or personal advice. We suggest that you consult with a qualified professional about your individual circumstances. How our information is created and how it's used.

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