Severe or prolonged tissue or nerve injury can induce hyperexcitability of dorsal horn neurons of the spinal cord, resulting in persistent pain, an exacerbated response to noxious stimuli (hyperalgesia), and a lowered pain threshold (allodynia). These changes are mediated by NMDA (N-methyl-D-aspartate)-type glutamate receptors in the spinal cord. Here we report that activation of the NMDA receptor causes release of substance P, a peptide neurotransmitter made by small-diameter, primary, sensory 'pain' fibres. Injection of NMDA in the cerebrospinal fluid of the rat spinal cord mimicked the changes that occur with persistent injury, and produced not only pain, but also a large-scale internalization of the substance P receptor into dorsal horn neurons, as well as structural changes in their dendrites. Both the pain and the morphological changes produced by NMDA were significantly reduced by substance P-receptor antagonists or by elimination of substance P-containing primary afferent fibres with the neurotoxin capsaicin. We suggest that presynaptic NMDA receptors located on the terminals of small-diameter pain fibres facilitate and prolong the transmission of nociceptive messages, through the release of substance P and glutamate. Therapies directed at the presynaptic NMDA receptor could therefore ameliorate injury-evoked persistent pain states.