The electromechanical events occurring during acute myocardial ischemia were assessed in 10 patients who developed spontaneous angina during cardiac catheterization. Aortic pressure and electrocardiogram were recorded, and heart rate and systolic and diastolic time intervals were measured under control conditions, at the onset of angina and during the relief of chest pain. In 5 patients spontaneous angina was accompanied by an increase in heart rate and systemic arterial pressure and by ST segment changes in anterior or anterolateral precordial leads. Diastolic time, expressed as percent of cardiac cycle, shortened from 48.8 ± 3.6% at rest to 33.6 ± 4.8% (p < 0.01) at the onset of angina, as a consequence of a significant increase in both electromechanical systole and heart rate, and returned to control values within 10 min after sublingual nitroglycerin. In the remaining 5 patients, spontaneous angina was accompanied by a decrease in heart rate and systemic arterial pressure and by ST segment changes in the inferior or inferolateral leads. The diastolic time increased significantly (p < 0.05) from 39.4 ± 6.1 % at rest to 47.8 ± 9% at the onset of angina, as a consequence of a significant decrease in heart rate and a slight decrease in electromechanical systole. Since coronary perfusion takes place mainly during diastole, our results suggest that the reflex increase in adrenergic tone may worsen myocardial ischemia by affecting diastolic perfusion time. In contrast, the increase in vagal tone may contribute to spontaneous relief of angina by prolonging diastolic perfusion time.