A deficit of endogenous pain inhibitory systems has been suggested to contribute to some chronic pain conditions, one of them being fibromyalgia. The aim of the investigation was to test whether endogenous pain inhibitory systems were activated by a spatial summation procedure in 30 fibromyalgia, 30 chronic low back pain, and 30 healthy volunteers who participated in a cross-over trial (two sessions). Each session consisted of visual analog scale ratings of pain during the immersion of different surfaces of the arm in circulating noxious cold (12 degrees C) water. The arm was arbitrarily divided into eight segments from the fingertips to the shoulder. One session was ascending (from the fingertips to the shoulder) and the other was descending (from the shoulder to the fingertips); they included eight consecutive 2-min immersions separated by 5-min resting periods. For healthy and low back pain subjects, pain was perceived differently during the ascending and descending sessions (P=0.0001). The descending session resulted in lower pain intensity and unpleasantness. This lowering of the perception curve seems to be due to a full recruitment of inhibitory systems at the beginning of the descending session as opposed to a gradual recruitment during the ascending session. For fibromyalgia subjects, no significant differences were found between the increasing and decreasing sessions (P>0.05). These data support a deficit of endogenous pain inhibitory systems in fibromyalgia but not in chronic low back pain. The treatments proposed to fibromyalgia patients should aim at stimulating the activity of those endogenous systems.