The mechanisms underlying the skin blood flow (SkBF) response to local heating are complex and poorly understood. Our goal was to examine the role of axon reflexes and nitric oxide (NO) in the SkBF response to a local heating protocol. We performed 40 experiments following a standardized heating protocol with different interventions, including blockade of the axon reflex (EMLA cream), antebrachial nerve blockade (0.5% bupivacaine injection), and NO synthase (NOS) inhibition (> or =10 mM N(G)-nitro-L-arginine methyl ester; microdialysis). Appropriate controls were performed to verify the efficacy of the various blocks. Values are expressed as a percentage of maximal SkBF (SkBF(max); 50 mM sodium nitroprusside). At the initiation of local heating, SkBF rose to an initial peak, followed by a brief nadir, and a secondary, progressive rise to a plateau. Axon reflex block decreased the initial peak from 75+3 to 32 +/- 2% SkBF(max) (P < 0.01 vs. control) but did not affect the plateau. NOS inhibition before and throughout local heating reduced the initial peak from 75 +/- 3 to 56 +/- 3% SkBF(max) (P < 0.01) and the plateau from 87 +/- 4 to 40 +/- 5%. NOS inhibition during axon reflex block did not further reduce the initial SkBF peak compared with axon reflex block alone. Antebrachial nerve block did not affect the local heating SkBF response. The primary finding of these studies is that there are at least two independent mechanisms contributing to the rise in SkBF during nonpainful local heating: a fast-responding vasodilator system mediated by the axon reflexes and a more slowly responding vasodilator system that relies on local production of NO.