Nerve growth factor (NGF) is trophic to sensory and sympathetic fibers. In animal models, NGF is depleted in diabetic nerves and NGF deprivation produces hypoalgesia. Exogenous NGF can reverse some of the pathological changes in diabetic nerves and NGF excess leads to hyperalgesia. We have quantified sensory and autonomic function in early diabetic polyneuropathy and correlated changes with levels of NGF and neuropeptides in affected skin. We describe an early length-dependent dysfunction of sensory small-diameter fibers, prior to dysfunction of sympathetic fibers, with depletion of skin NGF and the sensory neuropeptide substance P. We describe a significant correlation between NGF depletion and decreased skin axon-reflex vasodilation, mediated by small sensory fibers partly via substance P release. Immunostaining shows depletion of NGF in keratinocytes in diabetic skin. We propose that a decrease in endogenous skin-derived NGF influences the presentation of diabetic polyneuropathy, although metabolic or vascular abnormalities may be the cause of the neuropathy. As loss of nociception and axon-reflex vasodilation contribute to diabetic foot ulceration, early and prolonged NGF treatment at an appropriate dose may provide rational prophylaxis for this condition.