Tramadol is a cyclohexanol derivative with mu-agonist activity. It has been used as an analgesic for postoperative or chronic pain since the late 1970s, and became one of the most popular analgesics of its class in Germany. International interest has been renewed during the past few years, when it was discovered that tramadol not only acts on opioid receptors, but also inhibits serotonin (5-hydroxytryptamine; 5-HT) and noradrenaline (norepinephrine) reuptake. This review aims to provide a risk-benefit assessment of tramadol in the management of acute and chronic pain syndromes. Tramadol has been used intraoperatively as part of balanced anaesthesia. Such use is under discussion, however, as it was associated with a high incidence of intraoperative recall and dreaming, and postoperative respiratory depression has been described after intraoperative administration of high doses. Postoperatively, intravenous and intramuscular tramadol has been used with good efficacy. Analgesic doses were comparable with pethidine (meperidine) and 10 times higher than morphine. Nausea and vomiting were the most frequently reported adverse effects. In controlled studies, haemodynamic and respiratory parameters were only minimally impaired. The risk of severe respiratory depression in typical dosages is negligible in comparison with other opioids used for postoperative pain management. Tramadol has been used with good results for the management of labour pain without respiratory depression of the neonate. It was also effective for the treatment of pain from myocardial ischaemia, ureteric colic and acute trauma. Good results have been published for cancer pain management with tramadol in several studies. The potential for abuse or addiction seems to be minimal, and serious complications have not been reported. For patients with severe pain, the efficacy of morphine is superior, and most patients with adequate analgesia from tramadol had to be changed to a more potent opioid after a few weeks due to increased nociceptive input during tumour progression. Tramadol can be recommended as a safe and efficient drug for step II according to the World Health Organization guidelines for cancer pain management.