We have previously shown that norepinephrine can produce hyperalgesia via an alpha 2-adrenergic receptor mechanism. The alpha 2-adrenergic receptor agonist clonidine has, however, also been shown to produce peripheral analgesia. In view of the multiple alpha 2-subtypes currently known (i.e. alpha 2A, alpha 2B and alpha 2C), we evaluate the alpha 2-receptor subtypes mediating norepinephrine-induced peripheral hyperalgesia and clonidine analgesia. Norepinephrine and the alpha 2-adrenergic agonists clonidine and UK 14,304 (1-1000 ng), when co-injected with the calcium ionophore A23187 (1000 ng) produced dose-dependent hyperalgesia in the Randall-Selitto paw withdrawal test. Norepinephrine (100 ng) hyperalgesia was dose-dependently antagonized by alpha 2-adrenergic receptor antagonists. From the estimated ID50, the rank order of potency was: SK&F 104856 (alpha 2B) approximately imiloxan (alpha 2B) > rauwolscine (alpha 2C) >> BRL 44408 (alpha 2A). Norepinephrine hyperalgesia was not significantly affected by pertussis-toxin treatment. Prostaglandin E2 (100 ng) hyperalgesia was inhibited dose-dependently, by clonidine and UK 14,304. Rauwolscine was more potent in reversing the inhibitory effect of clonidine on prostaglandin E2 than imiloxan while BRL 44408 was ineffective. The inhibitory effect of clonidine on prostaglandin E2 hyperalgesia was reversed by pertussis toxin. These data suggest that alpha 2B-subtype receptors mediate (norepinephrine hyperalgesia while the antinociceptive effect of alpha 2-agonist is mediated by the alpha 2C-subtype receptor. Differential coupling of these receptor subtypes to second messenger systems and location on different cell types in the rat paw may explain, at least in part, their differential responses to alpha 2-agonist stimulation, leading to hyperalgesia and analgesia.