1. This study was undertaken to determine whether, in a group of patients complaining of recurrent syncopal attacks but with no apparent cause, there was evidence of abnormal cardiovascular reflex control.
2. The steady-state responses of blood pressure, heart rate and cardiac output to head-up tilting were determined in 67 patients using entirely ‘non-invasive’ methods. In some patients we also studied the immediate response of pulse interval to carotid baroreceptor stimulation by neck suction.
3. Two of the patients developed vasovagal attacks during the 20 min test period of head-up tilting. Eighteen others showed postural hypotension, defined as a fall in blood pressure to outside the limits of two sds from the mean values of age-related control subjects.
4. Patients who showed postural hypotension had a mean fall in cardiac output significantly larger than that in age-related control subjects. Responses in the non-hypotensive patients did not differ significantly from controls.
5. Stimulation of carotid baroreceptors resulted in significantly smaller responses of pulse interval in the patients defined as having postural hypotension compared with the non-hypotensive patients and with the age-related control subjects.
6. In some of the patients who did not show postural hypotension during the standard test, the duration of tilt was prolonged for up to 1 h. Five out of 26 patients developed vasovagal attacks. All the vasovagal patients showed an initial tachycardia and the response of pulse interval to neck suction was significantly larger than in the controls.
7. This study has shown that simple non-invasive tests of cardiovascular reflex function can divide patients with poor orthostatic tolerance into two groups: those with evidence of small reflex responses, associated with abnormally large falls in cardiac output during tilting, and those with evidence of overactive reflexes associated with the tendency to develop vasovagal syncope.