Few placebo-controlled trials have investigated the treatment of breakthrough pain (BTP) in patients with chronic pain. We evaluated the efficacy and safety of intranasal ketamine for BTP in a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, crossover trial. Twenty patients with chronic pain and at least two spontaneous BTP episodes daily self-administered up to five doses of intranasal ketamine or placebo at the onset of a spontaneous BTP episode (pain intensity > or =5 on a 0-10 scale). Two BTP episodes at least 48 h apart were treated with either ketamine or placebo. Patients reported significantly lower BTP intensity following intranasal ketamine than after placebo (P < 0.0001) with pain relief within 10 min of dosing and lasting for up to 60 min. No patient in the ketamine group required his/her usual rescue medication to treat the BTP episode, while seven out of 20 (35%) patients in placebo group did (P = 0.0135). Intranasal ketamine was well tolerated with no serious adverse events. After ketamine administration, four patients reported a transient change in taste, one patient reported rhinorrhea, one patient reported nasal passage irritation, and two patients experienced transient elevation in blood pressure. A side effect questionnaire administered 60 min and 24 h after drug or placebo administration elicited no reports of auditory or visual hallucinations. These data suggest that intranasal administration of ketamine provides rapid, safe and effective relief for BTP.