BACKGROUND: Despite the frequency of diabetes mellitus and its relationship to diabetic peripheral neuropathy (DPN) and neuropathic pain (NeP), our understanding of underlying mechanisms leading to chronic pain in diabetes remains poor. Recent evidence has demonstated a prominent role of microglial cells in neuropathic pain states. One potential therapeutic option gaining clinical acceptance is the cannabinoids, for which cannabinoid receptors (CB) are expressed on neurons and microglia. We studied the accumulation and activation of spinal and thalamic microglia in streptozotocin (STZ)-diabetic CD1 mice and the impact of cannabinoid receptor agonism/antagonism during the development of a chronic NeP state. We provided either intranasal or intraperitoneal cannabinoid agonists/antagonists at multiple doses both at the initiation of diabetes as well as after establishment of diabetes and its related NeP state. RESULTS: Tactile allodynia and thermal hypersensitivity were observed over 8 months in diabetic mice without intervention. Microglial density increases were seen in the dorsal spinal cord and in thalamic nuclei and were accompanied by elevation of phosphorylated p38 MAPK, a marker of microglial activation. When initiated coincidentally with diabetes, moderate-high doses of intranasal cannabidiol (cannaboid receptor 2 agonist) and intraperitoneal cannabidiol attenuated the development of an NeP state, even after their discontinuation and without modification of the diabetic state. Cannabidiol was also associated with restriction in elevation of microglial density in the dorsal spinal cord and elevation in phosphorylated p38 MAPK. When initiated in an established DPN NeP state, both CB1 and CB2 agonists demonstrated an antinociceptive effect until their discontinuation. There were no pronociceptive effects demonstated for either CB1 or CB2 antagonists. CONCLUSIONS: The prevention of microglial accumulation and activation in the dorsal spinal cord was associated with limited development of a neuropathic pain state. Cannabinoids demonstrated antinociceptive effects in this mouse model of DPN. These results suggest that such interventions may also benefit humans with DPN, and their early introduction may also modify the development of the NeP state.