Pain, hyperalgesia and activity in nociceptive C units in humans after intradermal injection of capsaicin

J Physiol. 1992 Mar;448:749-64. doi: 10.1113/jphysiol.1992.sp019068.


1. Capsaicin, the potent algesic substance in chilli peppers, was applied topically to, or injected intradermally into or outside, the receptive fields of 14 C mechanoheat (polymodal) nociceptor units in awake humans. The nociceptor discharges were recorded using microelectrodes inserted into the peroneal nerve. Simultaneously, the subjects estimated the magnitude of pain as a function of time during the first 1.5-3 min after injection. Magnitude estimates of pain produced by heat and/or mechanical stimuli were also obtained before and after capsaicin in order to assess the magnitude of cutaneous hyperalgesia. 2. An injection within or adjacent to, but not greater than 4 mm outside, the receptive fields of C nociceptor units evoked discharges. The magnitude of pain and the mean discharge rate of the units were both maximal on injection, declining rapidly over the next 1-3 min, which indicates that these nociceptors contribute to the magnitude and duration of pain evoked by capsaicin injection. 3. Reduced or abolished excitability in C nociceptors after capsaicin injection within the receptive fields correlated with analgesia at the injection site. 4. Capsaicin injection produced a wide surround area of mechanical hyperalgesia, i.e. pain on gently stroking the skin or abnormally intense pain on punctate stimulation. Nevertheless, the injections did not lower the thresholds or enhance the responses to such mechanical stimuli of C nociceptor units with their receptive fields in this hyperalgesic area. 5. Topical application of capsaicin evoked on-going discharges in four units tested. Both nociceptor response thresholds and pain thresholds were lowered for heat from 45 to 35 degrees C. A newly developed weak response to stroking the skin in two units after capsaicin was accompanied by faint pain. 6. On-going activity in sensitized C nociceptors and concomitant pain were effectively reduced by cooling the skin in the receptive area. 7. It is concluded that activity in C mechanoheat (polymodal) nociceptors contributes to the magnitude and duration of pain evoked by intradermal injection of capsaicin. The after-effects of capsaicin on C nociceptor excitability depend on concentration: high concentration (by injection) leads to desensitization, whereas low concentration (by topical application) leads to sensitization. On-going discharges and lowered response thresholds to heat in these units after topical application of capsaicin correlates with background pain as well as lowered pain thresholds to heat of the affected skin (primary hyperalgesia). The unchanged responsiveness of C nociceptors in the skin well outside the injection area indicates that central rather than peripheral sensitization accounts for the observed mechanical hyperalgesia in this region (secondary hyperalgesia).

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Capsaicin / pharmacology*
  • Cold Temperature
  • Evoked Potentials
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hyperalgesia / chemically induced
  • Male
  • Nociceptors / drug effects*
  • Nociceptors / physiopathology
  • Pain Measurement
  • Physical Stimulation
  • Sensory Thresholds / drug effects
  • Time Factors


  • Capsaicin