Breakthrough pain

Medical Specialties: Family practice, Internal medicine, Oncology

Clinical Definition

Breakthrough pain is a flare of pain that occurs in cancer patients even if they are taking pain reliever medication on a regular schedule as part of their cancer treatment. The term originates because it ''breaks through'' the pain relief expected from the scheduled pain medicine. Breakthrough pain is very unpredictable, typically comes on quickly and can be very intense. 

In Our Own Words

Pain in cancer patients can be caused by the disease itself or by treatments, including surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. To relieve it, patients often are prescribed pain relievers to take at regular times or around-the clock. However, breakthrough pain may affect cancer patients, despite the regularly scheduled pain medicines for the chronic pain. It is a flare of pain that can come on quickly and is aptly named because it ''breaks through" the pain relief patients expect from the routine intake of pain medicine.  


The breakthrough pain can be treated with other pain medicines that work quickly, but only for short periods of time. These short-acting medicines can be taken on an ''as needed'' basis instead of on a regular schedule. They are typically called ''rescue" pain medicines.

Relevant Conditions
Side Effects
  • Sudden flare of pain
  • Severe, intense pain
Share this article
  • Cleveland Clinic. "Understanding and Treating Cancer Pain. February 2013. Accessed August 2013.
  • American Cancer Society. "Pain Control.” Updated August 2013. Accessed August 2013.
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