We sought to determine whether low-affinity, high-capacity mitochondrial Ca2+ uptake contributes to buffering physiological Ca2+ loads in sensory neurons. Intracellular free calcium concentration ([Ca2+]i) and intracellular free hydrogen ion concentration ([H+]i) were measured in single rat dorsal root ganglion (DRG) neurons grown in primary culture using indo-1 and carboxy-SNARF-based dual emission microfluorimetry. Field potential stimulation evoked action potential- mediated increases in [Ca2+]. Brief trains of action potentials elicited [Ca2+]i transients that recovered to basal levels by a single exponential process. Trains of > 25 action potentials elicited larger increases in [Ca2+]i, recovery from which consisted of three distinct phases. During a rapid initial phase [Ca2+]i decreased to a plateau level (450–550 nM). The plateau was followed by a slow return to basal [Ca2+]i [Ca2+]i transients elicited by 40–50 action potentials in the presence of the mitochondrial uncoupler carbonyl cyanide chlorophenyl hydrazone (CCCP), or the electron transport inhibitor antimycin A1, lacked the plateau, and the recovery to basal [Ca2+]i consisted of a single slow phase. Depolarization with 50 mM K+ produced a multiphasic [Ca2+]i transient and increased [H+]i from 74 +/- 3 to 107 +/- 8 nM. The rise in [H+]i was dependent upon extracellular Ca2+ and was inhibited by mitochondrial poisons. With mitochondrial Ca2+ buffering pharmacologically blocked, the recovery to basal [Ca2+]i was unaffected by removal of extracellular Na+. We conclude that large Ca2+ loads are initially buffered by fast mitochondrial sequestration that effectively uncouples electron transport from ATP synthesis, leading to an increase in [H+]i. Small Ca2+ loads are buffered by a nonmitochondrial, Na(+)- independent process.