Upon receipt in the dorsal horn (DH) of the spinal cord, nociceptive (pain-signalling) information from the viscera, skin and other organs is subject to extensive processing by a diversity of mechanisms, certain of which enhance, and certain of which inhibit, its transfer to higher centres. In this regard, a network of descending pathways projecting from cerebral structures to the DH plays a complex and crucial role. Specific centrifugal pathways either suppress (descending inhibition) or potentiate (descending facilitation) passage of nociceptive messages to the brain. Engagement of descending inhibition by the opioid analgesic, morphine, fulfils an important role in its pain-relieving properties, while induction of analgesia by the adrenergic agonist, clonidine, reflects actions at alpha(2)-adrenoceptors (alpha(2)-ARs) in the DH normally recruited by descending pathways. However, opioids and adrenergic agents exploit but a tiny fraction of the vast panoply of mechanisms now known to be involved in the induction and/or expression of descending controls. For example, no drug interfering with descending facilitation is currently available for clinical use. The present review focuses on: (1) the organisation of descending pathways and their pathophysiological significance; (2) the role of individual transmitters and specific receptor types in the modulation and expression of mechanisms of descending inhibition and facilitation and (3) the advantages and limitations of established and innovative analgesic strategies which act by manipulation of descending controls. Knowledge of descending pathways has increased exponentially in recent years, so this is an opportune moment to survey their operation and therapeutic relevance to the improved management of pain.