Complex and contradictory data have been reported regarding the changes in spinal opioidergic systems associated with chronic inflammatory pain in the rat. In an attempt to solve these discrepancies, the in vivo release of met-enkephalin and dynorphin and the expression of the corresponding propeptide genes were investigated at the spinal level in arthritic rats and paired controls. A dramatic increase in the concentration of prodynorphin mRNA (+300-550%) and a less pronounced elevation of that of dynorphin-like material (+40-50%) were found in the dorsal part of cervical and lumbar segments of the spinal cord in rats rendered arthritic by an intradermal injection of Freund's adjuvant four weeks prior to these measurements. In addition, the spinal release of dynorphin-like material (assessed through an intrathecal perfusion procedure in halothane-anaesthetized animals) was approximately twice as high in arthritic rats as in controls. In spite of significant elevations in the levels of both met-enkephalin (+30-70%) and proenkephalin A mRNA (+40-50%) in the dorsal part of cervical and lumbar segments, the spinal release of met-enkephalin-like material was decreased (-50%) in arthritic rats as compared to paired controls. Proenkephalin A mRNA (but not prodynorphin mRNA) could be measured in dorsal root ganglia, and its levels were dramatically reduced in ganglia at the lumbar segments in arthritic rats. Such parallel reductions in the spinal release of met-enkephalin-like material and the levels of proenkephalin A mRNA in dorsal root ganglia of arthritic rats support the idea that the activity of primary afferent enkephalinergic fibres decreases markedly during chronic inflammatory pain.