Thermal hyperalgesia was induced by UV irradiation of the glabrous skin of the hindpaw of adult female Sprague-Dawley rats. We have recorded single cell activity and studied excitability changes in wide dynamic range neurons in the lumbar spinal segments during the early phase (days 1-3) and late phase (days 5-7) of thermal hyperalgesia in animals under urethane anaesthesia. The proportion of spontaneously active wide dynamic range cells was increased following UV irradiation and the degree of spontaneous activity was enhanced during the course of hyperalgesia. In addition there was a significant increase in the total number of spikes evoked by standardized mechanical and noxious heat stimuli when tested at days 1-3 and days 5-7. The duration of the evoked responses was also significantly prolonged in both UV-treated groups. The noxious temperature threshold to radiant heat stimulation was significantly decreased on the UV-treated but not on the contralateral hindpaw. The average size of the receptive fields on the UV-treated paws was expanded in comparison to control. To differentiate between possible central and peripheral components of the hyperactivity of wide dynamic range cells we performed in situ dorsal rhizotomy during the recording. Cutting the dorsal roots (L2-5) evoked a significantly larger and more prolonged discharge in wide dynamic range cells in both UV-treated groups in comparison to control. Spontaneous activity in spinal wide dynamic range neurons was reduced after rhizotomy in each group. However, the decrease was only significant at days 1-3 (P < 0.05) but not at days 5-7. Responses of wide dynamic range cells to supramaximal electrical stimulation of the dorsal roots were enhanced in the two UV-treated groups in comparison to control. After rhizotomy the number of evoked spikes decreased in all groups. However, the decrease was significant only at days 1-3 (P < 0.05). These data show that UV irradiation of the rat hindpaw induces a prolonged increase in the excitability of peripheral nerves and in spinal wide dynamic range neurons. These changes are likely to contribute to the hyperalgesia observed following UV pretreatment.