Extracellular adenosine and adenosine triphosphate (ATP) are involved in biological processes including neurotransmission, muscle contraction, cardiac function, platelet function, vasodilatation, signal transduction and secretion in a variety of cell types. They are released from the cytoplasm of several cell types and interact with specific purinergic receptors which are present on the surface of many cells. This review summarizes the evidence on the potential value and applicability of ATP (not restricted to ATP-MgCl(2)) and adenosine in the field of anaesthesia and intensive care medicine. It focuses, in particular, on evidence and roles in treatment of acute and chronic pain and in sepsis. Based on the evidence from animal and clinical studies performed during the last 20 years, ATP could provide a valuable addition to the therapeutic options in anaesthesia and intensive care medicine. It may have particular roles in pain management, modulation of haemodynamics and treatment of shock.