We have previously suggested that protein kinase C (PKC) contributes to persistent pain in the formalin test. This study compared the effects of pharmacological inhibition of PKC with either GF 109203X or chelerythrine on persistent pain following noxious chemical stimulation with its effects on mechanical hyperalgesia, which develops in the hindpaw contralateral to an injury produced by noxious thermal stimulation. Furthermore, we have assessed changes in membrane- associated PKC in spinal cord in response to both noxious chemical and thermal stimulation. Nociceptive responses, to a hindpaw injection of 50 microliters of 2.5% formalin, and flexion reflex thresholds, to mechanical stimulation (Randall-Selitto test) in the hindpaw contralateral to a thermal injury (15 sec immersion in water at 55 degrees C), were assessed following intrathecal injection of PKC inhibitors (GF 109203X or chelerythrine). Changes in the levels of membrane-associated PKC, as assayed by quantitative autoradiography of the specific binding of 3H-phorbol-12,13-dibutyrate (3H-PDBu) in spinal cord sections, were assessed in rats after noxious chemical (50 microliters of 5.0% formalin) and noxious thermal (90 sec immersion in water at 55 degrees C) stimulation. Inhibitors of PKC (GF 109203X, chelerythrine), produced significant reductions of nociceptive responses to 2.5% formalin, as well as a significant reduction in the mechanical hyperalgesia in the hindpaw contralateral to a thermal injury. In addition, both noxious chemical and thermal stimulation produced significant increases in specific 3H-PDBu binding in the dorsal horn of the lumbar spinal cord, likely reflecting alterations in membrane-associated PKC. The results provide both pharmacological and anatomical evidence that persistent pain produced by chemical stimulation with formalin and mechanical hyperalgesia in the hindpaw contralateral to a thermal injury are influenced by the translocation and activation of PKC in spinal cord dorsal horn neurons.