The effect of spinal manipulation on the respiratory burst of polymorphonuclear neutrophils (PMN) and monocytes from treated adults was measured by zymosan-stimulated chemiluminescence (CL). Peripheral blood was collected 15 min before and 15 min after treatment (sham manipulation, thoracic spine manipulation, or soft tissue manipulation), the cells were isolated, challenged with a standardized, opsonized luminol-containing suspension of zymosan, and monitored for CL. Plasma from two subsets of subjects was radioimmunoassayed for Substance P (SP). PMN were also preincubated with SP in vitro over the dose range 5 x 10(-12) M to 5 x 10(-8) M and the CL response monitored. The CL responses of both PMN and monocytes from subjects who received spinal manipulation were significantly higher after than before treatment, and significantly higher than the response in sham or soft-tissue treated subjects. Measurement of the force applied by sham and spinal manipulation suggested a force threshold for the enhancement of the CL response. Plasma levels of SP before and after treatment in sham treated subjects did not differ significantly; however, elevated plasma SP was observed in subjects after spinal manipulation. Preincubation of PMN with 1 x 10(-11) M, 5 x 10(-11) M or 1 x 10(-10) M SP in vitro primed PMN for an enhanced respiratory burst when the cells were subsequently challenged.