Following chronic sacral spinal cord transection in rats the affected tail muscles exhibit marked spasticity, with characteristic long-lasting tail spasms evoked by mild stimulation. The purpose of the present paper was to characterize the long-lasting reflex seen in tail muscles in response to electrical stimulation of the tail nerves in the awake spastic rat, including its development with time and relation to spasticity. Before and after sacral spinal transection, surface electrodes were placed on the tail for electrical stimulation of the caudal nerve trunk (mixed nerve) and for recording EMG from segmental tail muscles. In normal and acute spinal rats caudal nerve trunk stimulation evoked little or no EMG reflex. By 2 wk after injury, the same stimulation evoked long-lasting reflexes that were 1) very low threshold, 2) evoked from rest without prior EMG activity, 3) of polysynaptic latency with >6 ms central delay, 4) about 2 s long, and 5) enhanced by repeated stimulation (windup). These reflexes produced powerful whole tail contractions (spasms) and developed gradually over the weeks after the injury (< or =52 wk tested), in close parallel to the development of spasticity. Pure low-threshold cutaneous stimulation, from electrical stimulation of the tip of the tail, also evoked long-lasting spastic reflexes, not seen in acute spinal or normal rats. In acute spinal rats a strong C-fiber stimulation of the tip of the tail (20 x T) could evoke a weak EMG response lasting about 1 s. Interestingly, when this C-fiber stimulation was used as a conditioning stimulation to depolarize the motoneuron pool in acute spinal rats, a subsequent low-threshold stimulation of the caudal nerve trunk evoked a 300-500 ms long reflex, similar to the onset of the long-lasting reflex in chronic spinal rats. A similar conditioned reflex was not seen in normal rats. Thus there is an unusually long low-threshold polysynaptic input to the motoneurons (pEPSP) that is normally inhibited by descending control. This pEPSP is released from inhibition immediately after injury but does not produce a long-lasting reflex because of a lack of motoneuron excitability. With chronic injury the motoneuron excitability is increased markedly, and the pEPSP then triggers sustained motoneuron discharges associated with long-lasting reflexes and muscle spasms.