What is Breakthrough Cancer Pain?

If you have cancer pain, you will probably experience a persistent discomfort known as "background pain". This can normally be controlled with painkillers prescribed by your healthcare professional. However, you may also experience short-lasting episodes of more severe discomfort known as "breakthrough pain", because it breaks through the controlled background pain. Breakthrough pain requires different treatment to background pain (see 'What can I do to help manage my BTCP').

For some people, breakthrough pain is brought on by particular activities such as movement, so you may be able to predict when you are going to experience the pain. You may have heard your doctor or nurse refer to this type of pain as "incident pain".

However, you may find that your breakthrough pain does not appear to be related to any specific activity, and occurs unexpectedly for no obvious reason, so it's harder for you to predict when you are going to have the pain.

Watch a short explanatory video.


Key facts

  • Breakthrough pain is very common and occurs in 40-80% patients with cancer pain.
  • Breakthrough pain varies from person to person.
  • Breakthrough pain is usually a frequent occurrence – you might experience 3-4 episodes / day, although you may experience more or less than this.
  • Breakthrough pain is usually sudden and short-lived – episodes often last about 30 minutes, although the episodes can be much shorter or much longer.
  • Breakthrough pain is usually described by patients as being either "moderate" or "severe".
  • Breakthrough pain will most likely interfere with your ability to participate in your daily activities and routine.