Temporomandibular disorders (TMD) represent a family of recurrent conditions that often cause pain in the temporomandibular joint (TMJ) region and muscles of mastication. To determine if TMJ-responsive neurons encoded the intensity of pro-inflammatory chemical signals, dose-effect relationships were assessed after direct injection bradykinin into the joint space and compared with responses after injection of glutamate or saline. Neurons were recorded from superficial laminae of the trigeminal subnucleus caudalis/upper cervical cord junction region (Vc/C2) and identified by palpation of the TMJ region in barbiturate-anesthetized male rats. The majority (62 of 84) of units received convergent input from facial skin, while 26% were driven only by deep input from the TMJ region. Conduction-velocity based on the latency to firing after electrical stimulation of the TMJ region indicated 64% of units were driven by A-delta fiber input only. Bradykinin (0.1-10 μM) excited 69% of neurons tested, and 70% (19 of 27) of these units were activated by the lowest dose (0.1 μM). Glutamate (50-200 mM) excited 27% of units; however, when tested after bradykinin, 58% of units were activated by glutamate. Some TMJ units (17%) were excited by saline injection alone and not enhanced further by bradykinin or glutamate. Most (88%) TMJ units were activated by injection of the small fiber excitant, mustard oil (20% solution), into the TMJ region. Units responsive to bradykinin or glutamate were not restricted to particular classes [e.g., wide dynamic range (WDR), nociceptive specific (NS), deep only]. A small percentage of TMJ units (∼15%) were activated antidromically from the contralateral posterior thalamus. In parallel studies using c-fos immunocytochemistry, bradykinin (1 μM) injection into the TMJ region produced a greater number of Fos-positive neurons at the Vc/C2 region than glutamate (200 mM) or saline. These results revealed two broad classes of TMJ units that encoded the intensity of pro-inflammatory chemical stimuli applied to the TMJ region, units that received convergent nociceptive input from facial skin (i.e., WDR and NS units) and units that responded only to deep input from the TMJ region. On the basis of encoding properties and efferent projection status, it is concluded that activation of TMJ units within the superficial laminae at the Vc/C2 region contribute to the diffuse and spreading nature of TMD pain sensation.