The effects on nociception, blood pressure and heart rate of clonidine administered intrathecally to the lumbar level were determined in conscious rats and in rats anesthetized lightly with pentobarbital. In anesthetized rats, intrathecal (i.t.) clonidine (3.2-32.0 micrograms) inhibited the nociceptive tail-flick reflex and had biphasic effects on blood pressure; lesser doses (1.0-10.0 micrograms) produced depressor effects, whereas a greater dose (32.0 micrograms) produced a marked pressor response. Clonidine also produced biphasic effects on blood pressure in conscious rats, with the dose-response function shifted upward and to the left of that observed in anesthetized rats. The depressor and antinociceptive effects of 3.2 micrograms of clonidine were antagonized by pretreatment with yohimbine (30.0 micrograms i.t.) but not by prazosin (30.0 micrograms i.t.) or by yohimbine (0.1 mg/kg i.v.). Thus, these effects of clonidine are mediated by spinal alpha-2 adrenoceptors. The pressor response to 32.0 micrograms of clonidine (i.t., lumbar) was accompanied by marked bradycardia, and similar cardiovascular effects were observed when this dose of clonidine was administered either i.v. or to the cervical level of the spinal cord. The pressor response to 32.0 micrograms of clonidine (i.t., lumbar) was not reduced significantly by i.t. pretreatment with yohimbine (30.0 micrograms) or prazosin (30.0 micrograms), but was diminished significantly by i.v. pretreatment with yohimbine (1.0 mg/kg), prazosin (0.1 mg/kg) or phentolamine (2.0 mg/kg). Neither chlorisondamine (2.5 mg/kg i.v.) or the V1-vasopressin receptor antagonist [1-(beta-mercapto-beta,beta-cyclopentamethylene propionic acid), 2-(o-methyl)tyrosine]Arg8-vasopressin (10.0 micrograms/kg i.v.) reduced the clonidine-produced pressor response. After i.t. injection of 32.0 micrograms of [3H]clonidine, peak levels of radioactivity in the blood were observed at 2 min and corresponded to a blood concentration of 38.8 ng/ml. Injection of an i.v. bolus dose (2.5 micrograms/kg) sufficient to produce these blood levels resulted in a transient pressor response. These results suggest that after i.t. administration of greater doses of clonidine, sufficient amounts of the drug are rapidly redistributed systemically to produce pressor effects by stimulation of vascular alpha adrenoceptors.