The autonomic nervous system (ANS) plays an important role not only in physiological situations, but also in various pathological settings such as diabetic neuropathy, myocardial infarction (MI) and congestive heart failure (CHF). Autonomic imbalance associating increased sympathetic activity and reduced vagal tone has been been strongly implicated in the pathophysiology of arrhythmogenesis and sudden cardiac death. Among the different available noninvasive techniques for assessing the autonomic status heart rate variability (HRV) has emerged as a simple, noninvasive method to evaluate the sympathovagal balance at the sinoatrial level. It has been used in a variety of clinical situations including diabetic neuropathy, MI, sudden death and CHF. The standard measurements intervening in the analysis of HRV comprise time domain indices, geometric methods and components of the frequency domain. Measurements of HRV are generally performed on the basis of 24 hour Holter recordings (long-term recordings) or on shorter periods ranging from 0.5 to 5 minutes (short-term recordings). The use of long or short-term recordings depends on the type of study that has to be realised. Established clinical data based on numerous studies published during the last decade consider decreased global HRV as a strong predictor of increased all-cause cardiac and/or arrhythmic mortality, particularly in patients at risk after MI or with CHF. This article reviews the mechanism, the parameters and the use of HRV as a marker reflecting the activity of the sympathetic and vagal components of the ANS on the sinus node, and as a clinical tool for screening and identifying patients particularly at risk for cardiac mortality.