The ex vivo effects of passive mechanical stretch on the activation of nuclear factor-kappaB (NF-kappaB) pathways in skeletal muscles from normal and mdx mouse, a model of Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD), were investigated. The NF-kappaB/DNA binding activity of the diaphragm muscle was increased by the application of axial mechanical stretch in a time-dependent manner. The increased activation of NF-kappaB was associated with a concomitant increase in I-kappaB (IkappaB) kinase activity and the degradation of IkappaBalpha protein. Pretreatment of the muscles with nifedipine (a Ca2+ channel blocker) and gadolinium(III) chloride (a stretch-activated channel blocker) did not alter the level of activation of NF-kappaB, ruling out involvement of Ca2+ influx through these channels. Furthermore, N-acetyl cysteine, a free radical inhibitor, blocked the mechanical stretch-induced NF-kappaB activation, suggesting the involvement of free radicals. Compared with normal diaphragm, the basal level of NF-kappaB activity was higher in muscles from mdx mice, and it was further enhanced in mechanically stretched muscles. Furthermore, activation of NF-kappaB and increased expression of inflammatory cytokines IL-1beta and tumor necrosis factor alpha in the mdx mouse precede the onset of muscular dystrophy. Our results show that mechanical stretch activates the classical NF-kappaB pathway and this pathway could be predominately active in DMD.