Recent studies indicate that the nociceptive withdrawal reflexes to individual muscles are evoked by separate reflex pathways. The present study examines whether nociceptive withdrawal reflexes to different muscles are subject to differential supraspinal control in rats. A distant noxious stimulus was used to activate a bulbospinal system which selectively inhibits ‘multireceptive’ neurons (i.e. neurons receiving excitatory tactile and nociceptive inputs) in the dorsal horn of the spinal cord. Withdrawal reflexes, recorded with electromyographic techniques in single hindlimb muscles, were evoked by standardized noxious pinch. Thirty-seven rats, anaesthetized with halothane and nitrous oxide, were used. Whereas withdrawal reflexes to the extensor digitorum longus and brevis, tibialis anterior and biceps posterior muscles were strongly inhibited, reflexes to interossei muscles were potentiated during noxious pinch of the nose. Reflexes to peronei muscles were not significantly changed. The effects on the reflexes usually had an onset latency of <0.5 s and outlasted the conditioning stimulation by up to 2 s. The monosynaptic la reflex to the deep peroneal nerve, innervating dorsiflexors of the digits and ankle, was not significantly changed during noxious pinch of the nose. Hence, the inhibitory effects on the hindlimb withdrawal reflexes induced by the conditioning stimulation were presumably exerted on reflex interneurons. It is concluded that nociceptive withdrawal reflexes to different hindlimb muscles are differentially controlled by descending pathways activated by a distant noxious stimulus. The results support our previous conclusion that there are separate nociceptive withdrawal reflex pathways to different hindlimb muscles.