Tissue injuries commonly cause an increase in pain sensitivity, so that normally painful stimuli become more painful (hyperalgesia), and those usually associated with nonnoxious sensations evoke pain (allodynia). The neural bases for these sensory phenomena have been explored most extensively using heat injuries and experimental arthritis as models. Heat sensitization of cutaneous nociceptors is observed after burns, and sensitization of articular afferents to limb movements occurs after knee joint inflammation. These are likely to be peripheral mechanisms of hyperalgesia. Others, using different models of peripheral inflammation, have only rarely found mechanical sensitization of cutaneous nociceptors. In general these studies have failed to evaluate suprathreshold mechanical sensitivity, which has led to the concept of enhanced spinal cord processing ("central sensitization") serving as the neural substrate for mechanical hyperalgesia. In the current experiments, the mechanical and heat responses of cutaneous nociceptors supplying the glabrous skin of the rat hindpaw were studied 16-24 h after induction of acute inflammation with complete Freund's adjuvant. Single-fiber recordings were made from nociceptors in the sciatic nerve of barbiturate-anesthetized animals, and their responses compared with those obtained from nociceptors tested identically in normal animals. Nociceptors were characterized by the following: 1) graded mechanical stimuli (5-90 g) delivered with probes of tip area of 1 and 0.1 mm(2), 2) their adaptive responses to 2-min mechanical stimuli at three intensities, and 3) their responses to graded heat stimuli (40-50 degrees C). Forty-three nociceptors were studied in the inflamed state; 20 were A fibers, and the remainder were C fibers. Mechanical thresholds, determined with calibrated monofilaments, were not significantly different from controls. Sensitization to suprathreshold mechanical stimuli was observed for both A- and C-fiber nociceptors, although it was greater for the A fibers. Similarly, sensitization during testing of adaptive properties of A- and C-fiber nociceptors was seen, although it was limited to the dynamic (initial) and not the static (plateau) phase of the response. Heat sensitization was observed in 25% of A-fiber nociceptors, but the responses of C fibers to heat were depressed. Other indicators of neuronal sensitization, such as spontaneous activity and expanded receptive fields, were also observed. It was concluded that the mechanical hyperalgesia caused by peripheral inflammation could be explained by nociceptor sensitization. Central mechanisms cannot be completely ruled out as contributing to such hyperalgesia, although their role may be much smaller than previously envisaged.