Clinical and radiographic examinations are commonly used for estimating severity and titrating therapy of chronic congestive heart failure. The purpose of this study was to establish the relationship between findings on history, physical examination, chest roentgenogram, and pulmonary capillary wedge pressure (PCWP). Fifty-two consecutive patients with chronic congestive heart failure, referred for evaluation for heart transplantation, were studied; all patients underwent history, physical examination, upright chest roentgenogram, and cardiac catheterization. The mean left ventricular ejection fraction was 0.19 +/- 0.06. Patients were divided into three groups according to their PCWP: Group 1, normal PCWP (less than or equal to 15 mm Hg, n = 19); Group 2, mild to moderately elevated PCWP (16 to 29 mm Hg, n = 15); Group 3, markedly elevated PCWP (greater than or equal to 30 mm Hg, n = 18). Physical and radiographic signs of congestion were more common in the groups with higher PCWP, but they could not be used to reliably separate patients with different filling pressures. Physical findings (orthopnea, edema, rales, third heart sound, elevated jugular venous pressure) or radiographic signs (cardiomegaly, vascular redistribution, and interstitial and alveolar edema) had poor predictive value for identifying patients with PCWP values greater than or equal to 30 mm Hg. These findings had poor negative predictive value to exclude significantly elevated PCWP (greater than 20 mm Hg). Radiographic pulmonary congestion was absent in eight (53%) patients in Group 2 and seven (39%) in Group 3. In patients in Group 2 and 3, those without radiographic congestion were in a better New York Heart Association functional class (3.5 +/- 0.5 versus 2.8 +/- 0.6, p less than 0.01). There was good correlation between right atrial pressure and PCWP (r = 0.64, p less than 0.001). A normal right atrial pressure had no predictive value, but a pressure greater than 10 mm Hg was seen in all but one patient with a PCWP value greater than 20 mm Hg. Clinical, radiographic, and hemodynamic evaluations of chronic congestive heart failure yield conflicting results. Absence of radiographic or physical signs of congestion does not ensure normal PCWP values and may lead to inaccurate diagnosis and inadequate therapy. It is not known whether therapy aimed at normalizing PCWP is superior to relieving clinical and radiographic signs of congestion.