Shock waves (SWs) are single pressure pulses with amplitudes up to over 100 MPa, a rise time of only a few nanoseconds, and a short duration of approximately 2 microseconds. Their clinical application for stone destruction causes pain, indicating nerve stimulation by SWs. To examine this phenomenon, sciatic nerves of frogs were exposed to SWs in an organ bath. The SWs were generated with an experimental Dornier lithotripter model XL1 at an operating voltage of 15 kV. The nerves were mounted in a chamber which allowed electrical nerve stimulation and the registration of electrically and SW-induced compound action potentials (SWCAPs). The chamber was filled with frog Ringer's solution. In a standardized protocol. The first experiment established that 95.0 +/- 4.7% of administered SWs induced action potentials which were lower in amplitude (1.45 +/- 1.14 versus 1.95 +/- 0.95 mV, p = 0.004) but similar in shape to electrically induced compound action potentials. In a second experiment, it was shown that the site of origin of the SWCAPs could be correctly determined by simultaneous recording of action potentials at both ends of the nerve. The mechanism of shock wave stimulation was examined by experiments 3 and 4. In experiment 3, in contrast to the previous experiments, SW exposure of the nerves was performed 6 cm outside the shock wave focus. This resulted in a mean probability of inducing a SWCAP of only 4%. After gas bubble administration, this probability increased to 86% for the first SW released immediately after bubble application and declined to 56% for the second, 21% for the third, to 0 for the 10th SW after fluid injection. This indicates that cavitation, the interaction between shock waves and gas bubbles in fluid or tissues, was involved in SWCAP generation. In experiment 4, nerves were again exposed in the focus, however, the Ringer's solution surrounding the nerve was replaced by polyvinyl alcohol (PVA). PVA is a solution with low cavitation activity.In PVA, the excitability was markedly diminished to 11.0 +/- 5.1% compared with 96.0 +/- 4.4% in control nerves exposed in Ringer's solution. In conclusion, bioeffects of SWs on nervous tissue appear to result from cavitation. It is suggested that cavitation is also the underlying mechanism of SW-related pain during extracorporeal SW lithotripsy in clinical medicine.