Background Spinal cord N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptors are intimately involved in the development and maintenance of central sensitization. However, the mechanisms mediating the altered function of the NMDA receptors are not well understood. In this study the role of phosphorylation of NR1 splice variants and NR2 subunits was examined following hind paw inflammation in rats. We further examined the level of expression of these proteins following the injury. Results Lumbar spinal cord NR1 subunits were found to be phosphorylated on serine residues within two hours of the induction of hind paw inflammation with carrageenan. The enhanced NR1 serine phosphorylation reversed within six hours. No phosphorylation on NR1 threonine or tyrosine residues was observed. Likewise, no NR2 subunit phosphorylation was observed on serine, threonine or tyrosine residues. An analysis of NR1 and NR2 protein expression demonstrated no change in the levels of NR1 splice variants or NR2A following the inflammation. However, spinal cord NR2B expression was depressed by the hind paw inflammation. The expression of NR2B remained depressed for more than one week following initiation of the inflammation. Conclusion These data suggest that NR1 serine phosphorylation leads to an initial increase in NMDA receptor activity in the spinal cord following peripheral injury. The suppression of NR2B expression suggests compensation for the enhanced nociceptive activity. These data indicate that spinal cord NMDA receptors are highly dynamic in the development, maintenance and recovery from central sensitization following an injury. Thus, chronic pain therapies targeted to NMDA receptors should be designed for the exact configuration of NMDA receptor subunits and post-translational modifications present during specific stages of the disease.