Recent evidence suggests that hyperalgesia and morphine tolerance, two seemingly unrelated phenomena, have in common certain neural substrates such as activation of the N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptor and the subsequent intracellular activation of protein kinase C and nitric oxide. Should common cellular elements be involved in hyperalgesia and morphine tolerance, these cellular and intracellular commonalities might be expected to result in interactions between these two phenomena. Indeed, our previous studies have shown that thermal hyperalgesia develops when animals are made tolerant to the antinociceptive effects of morphine. In this study, we examined the hypothesis that reduction of morphine antinociception occurs following unilateral ligation of the rats's sciatic nerve, a procedure which produces symptoms of a neuropathic pain syndrome including thermal hyperalgesia. When tested using the paw-withdrawal test on day 8 (D8) after either nerve ligation or sham operation, a single intrathecal treatment with 10 micrograms morphine sulfate (30 min after administration) produced significant antinociception in sham-operated rats but not in nerve-injured ones. These results also were obtained when thermal hyperalgesia was reversed in nerve-injured rats by the non-competitive NMDA receptor antagonist MK-801. Consistently, 8 days after sciatic nerve ligation but not after a sham operation, an approximately 6-fold rightward shift occurred in the morphine antinociceptive dose-response curve. This rightward shift of the morphine antinociceptive dose-response curve did not occur at 24 h after either nerve ligation or sham operation. In addition, once daily treatment with 10 nmol MK-801 from D2 to D7 after nerve ligation prevented both the development of thermal hyperalgesia and the rightward shift of the morphine antinociceptive dose-response curve on D8. The results indicate that the antinociceptive effects of morphine are reduced in nerve-injured rats in the absence of daily exposure to morphine and that the NMDA receptor activation may have a critical role in mechanisms of this phenomenon. These data provide further evidence indicating that interactions do occur between neural mechanisms underlying thermal hyperalgesia and morphine tolerance.