Hypersensitivity after tissue injury is an expression of neuronal plasticity in the central nervous system. This has been explored most extensively using in vitro preparations and animal models of inflammatory pain and chemical irritation. For pain after surgery, a similar process has been proposed. In the present study, we examined dorsal horn neuron (DHN) sensitization using the plantar incision model for post-operative pain. In behavioral experiments, the effect of a local anesthetic injection (or saline vehicle) 15 min before plantar incision on pain behaviors several days after incision was studied. Bupivacaine injection before incision prevented pain behaviors until 4 h afterwards; injection after incision produced the same effect. One day after incision, pain behaviors were not different between rats injected with saline or bupivacaine. In neurophysiologic experiments, however, bupivacaine injection blocked activation of DHNs during incision. One hour after incision, expansion of receptive fields (RFs) to pinch and increased background activity occurred in 14 of 16 neurons in the saline group but only in two of 22 neurons in the bupivacaine group. The difference was not due to a systemic effect of bupivacaine. Ten sensitized neurons were studied using the injection of bupivacaine 90 min after incision. Increased background activity (n = 7) and expanded RFs (it = 7) were reversed by bupivacaine. Sensitization was re-established in seven of eight neurons 2 h after injection as the local anesthetic dissipated. These results indicate that activation of DHNs during plantar incision and sensitization I h later are not necessary for subsequent pain behaviors. Because sensitization was reversed 90 min after plantar incision and then re-established as the local anesthetic effect diminished, enhanced responsiveness of DHN requires ongoing afferent input during the first day after incision. (C) 2002 International Association for the Study of Pain. Published by Elsevier Science B.V. All rights reserved.