Chronic compression of the dorsal root ganglion (CCD) was produced in adult rats by implanting a stainless steel rod unilaterally into the intervertebral foramen, one rod at L(4) and another at L(5). Two additional groups of rats received either a sham surgery or an acute injury consisting of a transient compression of the ganglion. Withdrawal of the hindpaw was used as evidence of a nocifensive response to mechanical and thermal stimulation of the plantar surface. In addition, extracellular electrophysiological recordings of spontaneous discharges were obtained from dorsal root fibers of formerly compressed ganglia using an in vitro nerve-DRG-dorsal root preparation. The mean threshold force of punctate indentation and the mean threshold temperature of heating required to elicit a 50% incidence of foot withdrawal ipsilateral to the CCD were significantly lower than preoperative values throughout the 35 days of postoperative testing. The number of foot withdrawals ipsilateral to the CCD during a 20-min contact with a temperature-controlled floor was significantly increased over preoperative values throughout postoperative testing when the floor was 4 degrees C (hyperalgesia) and, to a lesser extent, when it was 30 degrees C (spontaneous pain). Stroking the foot with a cotton wisp never elicited a reflex withdrawal before surgery but did so in most rats tested ipsilateral to the CCD during the first 2 postoperative weeks. In contrast, the CCD produced no changes in responses to mechanical or thermal stimuli on the contralateral foot. The sham operation and acute injury produced no change in behavior other than slight, mechanical hyperalgesia for approximately 1 day, ipsilateral to the acute injury. Ectopic spontaneous discharges generated within the chronically compressed ganglion and, occurring in the absence of blood-borne chemicals and without an intact sympathetic nervous system, were recorded from neurons with intact, conducting, myelinated or unmyelinated peripheral nerve fibers. The incidence of spontaneously active myelinated fibers was 8.61% for CCD rats versus 0.96% for previously nonsurgical rats. We hypothesize that a chronic compression of the dorsal root ganglion after certain injuries or diseases of the spine may produce, in neurons with intact axons, abnormal ectopic discharges that originate from the ganglion and potentially contribute to low back pain, sciatica, hyperalgesia, and tactile allodynia.