Increases in neuronal activity in response to tissue injury lead to changes in gene expression and prolonged changes in the nervous system. These functional changes appear to contribute to the hyperalgesia and spontaneous pain associated with tissue injury. This activity-dependent plasticity involves neuropeptides, such as dynorphin, substance P and calcitonin gene-related peptide, and excitatory amino acids, such as NMDA, which are chemical mediators involved in nociceptive processing. Unilateral inflammation in the hindpaw of the rat results in an increase in the expression of preprodynorphin and preproenkephalin mRNA in the spinal cord, which parallels the behavioral hyperalgesia associated with the inflammation. Cellular intermediate-early genes, such as c-fos, are also expressed in spinal cord neurons following inflammation and activation of nociceptors. Peripheral inflammation results in an enlargement of the receptive fields of many of these neurons. Dynorphin applied to the spinal cord also induces an enlargement of receptive fields. NMDA antagonists block the hyperexcitability produced by inflammation. A model has been proposed in which dynorphin, substance P and calcitonin gene-related peptide enhance excitability at NMDA receptor sites, leading first to dorsal horn hyperexcitability and then to excessive depolarization and excitotoxicity.