A pathological state of arterial vasodilation has been postulated to cause the increased cardiac output commonly observed in cirrhosis. Further, subsequent arterial underfilling has been proposed as the stimulus to sodium retention and ascites formation. Left ventricular size during the cycle of a cardiac contraction is predictably altered by a decrease in afterload. Specifically, increased systolic emptying should be observed. The relationship of left ventricular size during the cardiac cycle to systemic hemodynamic indices and urinary sodium retention was investigated in patients with alcoholic cirrhosis to test these hypotheses. Echocardiographic studies were performed on 24 male patients with alcoholic cirrhosis and compared with the results obtained in 10 age-matched male controls. Patients with cirrhosis had increased cardiac output and heart rate and decreased arterial pressure compared with normal subjects, confirming the presence of a hyperdynamic circulation. Patients with cirrhosis had enlarged left ventricular diameter at both end diastole (0.08 +/- 0.01 vs. 0.07 +/- 0.007 cm/kg dry body wt; P less than 0.001) and end systole (0.06 +/- 0.01 vs. 0.05 +/- 0.005 cm/kg; P less than 0.05). Left ventricular end-diastolic diameter was directly related to blood volume (r = 0.56, P less than 0.005). No significant differences in cardiac output, arterial pressure, or systemic resistance were found between patients with and patients without ascites. Increased cardiac output in cirrhosis occurs in conjunction with an enlarged ventricle throughout the cardiac cycle. The increase in left ventricular end-systolic diameter indicates that diminished afterload is not responsible for the increase in cardiac output. As the diameter of the ventricle during diastolic filling correlates with vascular volume, cardiac output in cirrhosis may be primarily determined by an increase in vascular volume.