Previous studies have suggested that microvascular abnormalities and endothelial dysfunction cause slow coronary flow (SCF). The objective of this study was to assess the plasma nitric oxide (NO) level and determine its role in the pathogenesis of SCF phenomenon. Thirty-six patients with SCF (group 1) and otherwise patent coronary arteries and 34 subjects with normal coronary flow (group 2) were included in the study. Coronary flow was quantified according to the TIMI Frame Count (TFC) method. Brachial artery endothelium-dependent flow-mediated dilatation (FMD) and nitroglycerin (NTG)-induced endothelium-independent dilatation were studied in both groups. In addition, plasma NO levels were measured and their contribution to FMD was determined. The sex, age, body mass index, arterial blood pressure, and heart rate distributions were similar in both groups. TFC was significantly higher in group 1 compared to group 2 for each artery. The plasma NO level was lower in patients with SCF than in control subjects (18.4 +/- 4.4 versus 25.2 +/- 6.3 mu mol/L P = 0.001). FMD was significantly smaller in group 1 than in group 2 (4.0 +/- 3.2% versus 10.6 +/- 5.8%, P = 0.0001). The percent NTG-induced dilatation was similar in the two groups (16.8 +/- 1.1% versus 17.1 +/- 1.1%, P = 0.42). In group 1, the plasma NO level was correlated with percent of FMD. Also, the plasma NO level was inversely correlated with TFC for each artery. Reduced NO bioactivity as well as impaired FMD support the presence of endothelial damage in the pathogenesis of SCF phenomenon.