The nociceptive flexion reflex (RIII reflex) and the concurrent subjective pain score elicited by right sural nerve stimulation at random intensities were studied in 10 healthy volunteers. A close relationship was found between the recruitment curves of the reflex and the pain score as a function of stimulus intensity. As a consequence, the threshold of the RIII reflex (Tr) and of pain sensation (Tp) were found to be almost identical (mean: 9.8 and 11.3 mA, respectively). Similarly, the threshold for obtaining a maximal reflex response (Tmr) was found to be very close to that for intolerable pain (Tip): 33.5 and 35.1 mA, respectively. These four parameters were studied before and during the immersion of the left hand into a heated thermoregulated waterbath at various temperatures (from 40 to 47.5 degrees C). While nonnociceptive temperatures (40 to 44 degrees C) were without effect, higher conditioning temperatures induced an increase in the four thresholds. In addition, a highly significant linear relationship was observed between the increase in these thresholds and the intensity of the conditioning stimulus in the 44 to 47.5 degrees C range. These four parameters were also studied before and during three other nociceptive conditioning stimuli: immersion of the left hand into a 6 degrees C waterbath, 10 watts muscular exercise of the left hand performed under ischaemia and a painful (5.5 kg/cm2) pinch applied on the nasal septum. These three conditioning situations induced a very significant increase of the four thresholds considered in this study with the greatest being observed during nociceptive cold applied to the left hand. During all the conditioning situations, variations in Tr and Tp as well as in Tmr and Tip were found to be linearly related. This indicates a close relationship between the effects of the conditioning nociceptive stimuli on the reflex and the related pain sensation. These results suggest that the modulation of pain by heterotopic nociceptive stimuli can be explained at least in part by a depression in the transmission of nociceptive messages at the spinal level. They are discussed with reference to the counterirritation phenomena and common features with 'diffuse noxious inhibitory controls' (DNIC) are underlined.