Increased plasma catecholamine levels assessed from the venous blood have been found in a number of studies of younger patients with essential hypertension, but hypertensive-normotensive differences could not easily be demonstrated in subjects above 40 years of age. For several reasons, measurement of arterial plasma catecholamines may be a more sensitive tool for the detection of hypertensive-normotensive differences. The present study therefore aimed at examining both venous and arterial plasma catecholamines in a group of white men, all 50 years of age, with never-treated, established essential hypertension (n = 61, blood pressure 165 +/- 2/112 +/- 1 mm Hg, means +/- SE) and comparing them with a similar group of normotensive men (n = 51, blood pressure 128 +/- 1/85 +/- 1 mm Hg). Arterial and venous plasma epinephrine, heart rate, and body weight were significantly elevated in the hypertensive group. Plasma norepinephrine was similar between the groups in the venous blood, whereas in the arterial blood the values in hypertensive subjects were moderately, but significantly increased (p less than 0.03). However, stepwise multiple regression analysis suggested arterial plasma norepinephrine was the only significant independent explanatory variable of raised blood pressure in the hypertensive group (r = 0.51, t = 4.05, p = 0.0002). Such a relationship was not found in the normotensive group. Thus based on measurements in arterial blood, we conclude that plasma norepinephrine, representing sympathetic tone, may be an important pathogenetic factor for high blood pressure in middle-aged men with established hypertension.