The objectives of this study were to evaluate the physiological importance of the flow and shear generated by phasic contractions of lymphatic vessels and the mechanisms responsible for the influences of such shear on lymphatic pumping. Lymphatic segments of the rat thoracic duct were isolated, cannulated and pressurized. The diastolic diameters were measured in phasically non-active segments. The diastolic and systolic diameters, half-relaxation time (HRT), contraction frequency, ejection fraction and fractional pump flow were determined in phasically active segments. Since imposed flow was excluded, flow and shear occurred only as a result of the intrinsic contractions in phasically active segments whereas in phasically non-active segments contraction-generated flow and shear were absent. The influences of incrementally increased transmural pressure (from 1 to 5 cmH(2)O) were examined in control conditions and after NO synthase blockade (l-NAME 10(-4) m) or cyclooxygenase blockade (indomethacin 10(-5) m). The spontaneous phasic contractions produced a flow-dependent diastolic relaxation. This reduction of the lymphatic tone is a regulatory mechanism that maintains pumping in thoracic duct in an energy-saving/efficient mode: it improves diastolic filling (enhanced lusitropy - lowering HRT), makes lymphatic contractions stronger (enhanced inotropy - higher contraction amplitude) and propels more fluid forward during each contraction (elevated ejection fraction) while decreasing contraction frequency (reduced chronotropy). The findings also demonstrated that the NO pathway, not the cyclooxygenase pathway is responsible for this reduction of lymphatic tone and is the prevailing pathway responsible for the self-regulatory adjustment of thoracic duct pumping to changes in lymph flow pattern.