Mu opioid receptors (MOR) mediate the analgesic effects of opioid drugs such as morphine. The opioid receptor-like (ORL-1) receptor is structurally related to opioid receptors and the ORL-1 receptor agonist, orphanin FQ/nociceptin, induces analgesia at the spinal level, but appears to recruit different circuitry than that used by mu opioids. When administered intracerebroventricularly, orphanin FQ/nociceptin produces hyperalgesia and/or reverses opioid analgesia. The functionally distinct actions elicited by MOR and ORL-1 receptors, which activate similar intracellular signaling systems and show similar regional distributions, could be explained by their differential cellular localization. By using double label immunohistochemistry and confocal microscopy, the present study investigates the distribution of MOR and ORL-1 receptors in regions of the rat nervous system that are involved with nociceptive processing. In general co-localization of MOR and ORL-1 receptor immunoreactivity was not observed in either perikarya or neuropil in the dorsal root ganglia, nor in the Lissauer's tract and superficial laminae of the spinal cord. Likewise, there was no evidence for co-localization of these receptors within the periaqueductal gray, the nucleus raphe magnus, the gigantocellular reticular nucleus, and the nucleus of the solitary tract. These observations indicate that MOR and ORL-1 receptors are expressed predominantly on different fiber systems in these regions. This differential distribution is consistent with the distinct pharmacology of ORL-1 and MOR receptor agonists and suggests that the antisera to MOR and ORL-1 receptors may provide useful markers for further investigations of analgesic and counteranalgesic pathways modulating pain perception.