OBJECTIVES--To study the clinical and pathophysiological features of central pain due to damage to the CNS. METHODS--156 patients (mostly with ischaemic strokes, some with infarct after subarachnoid haemorrhage and other cerebral conditions; one with bulbar and others with spinal pathology) with central pain have been investigated clinically and varying numbers instrumentally with respect to quantitative somatosensory perception thresholds and autonomic function. RESULTS--Pain onset was immediate in a minority; and from a week or two up to six years in > 60%. For those with supraspinal ischaemic lesions, the median age of onset was 59; dominant and non-dominant sides were equally affected. Two thirds of the patients had allodynia, including a previously undescribed movement allodynia apparently triggered from group I afferents. Most patients exhibited autonomic instability in that their pain was increased by physical and emotional stress and alleviated by relaxation; cutaneous blood flow and sweating may also be affected. Pain occurred within a larger area of differential sensory deficit. The critical deficit seems to be for thermal and pinprick sensations, which were more pronounced in areas of greatest than in areas of least pain; whereas low threshold mechanoceptive functions, if affected, did not vary between areas of greatest and least pain. Skinfold pinch (tissue damage) pain thresholds were only slightly affected in supraspinal cases, but greatly increased in patients with spinal lesions; thermal (heat) pain did not show this dissociation. CONCLUSION--The pathogenetic hypothesis which seems best to fit the findings is that there is up regulation or down regulation of receptors for transmitters, possibly mainly noradrenergic, over time.