Neuropathic pain is often associated with the appearance of pain in regions not related to the injured nerve. One mechanism that may underlie neuropathic pain is abnormal, spontaneous afferent drive which may contribute to NMDA-mediated central sensitization by the actions of glutamate and by the non-opioid actions of spinal dynorphin. In the present study, injuries to lumbar or sacral spinal nerves elicited elevation in spinal dynorphin content which correlated temporally and spatially with signs of neuropathic pain. The increase in spinal dynorphin content was coincident with the onset of tactile allodynia and thermal hyperalgesia. Injury to the lumbar (L(5)/L(6)) spinal nerves produced elevated spinal dynorphin content in the ipsilateral dorsal spinal quadrant at the L(5) and L(6) spinal segments and in the segments immediately adjacent. Lumbar nerve injury elicited ipsilateral tactile allodynia and thermal hyperalgesia of the hindpaw. In contrast, S(2) spinal nerve ligation elicited elevated dynorphin content in sacral spinal segments and bilaterally in the caudal lumbar spinal cord. The behavioral consequences of S(2) spinal nerve ligation were also bilateral, with tactile allodynia and thermal hyperalgesia seen in both hindpaws. Application of lidocaine to the site of S(2) ligation blocked thermal hyperalgesia and tactile allodynia of the hindpaws suggesting that afferent drive was critical to maintenance of the pain state. Spinal injection of antiserum to dynorphin A((1-17)) and of MK-801 both blocked thermal hyperalgesia, but not tactile allodynia, of the hindpaw after S(2) ligation. These data suggest that the elevated spinal dynorphin content consequent to peripheral nerve injury may drive sensitization of the spinal cord, in part through dynorphin acting directly or indirectly on the NMDA receptor complex. Furthermore, extrasegmental increases in spinal dynorphin content may partly underlie the development of extraterritorial neuropathic pain.