Frequency domain analysis of heart rate variation has been suggested as an effective screening tool for sleep-disordered breathing (SDB) in the general population. The aim of this study was to assess this method in patients with chronic congestive heart failure (CHF). We included prospectively 84 patients with stable CHF, left ventricular ejection fraction (LVEF) <45% and sinus rhythm. The patients underwent polygraphy to measure the apnoea/hypopnoea index (AHI) and simultaneous Holter electrocardiogram monitoring to measure the power spectral density of the very low frequency component of the heart rate increment, expressed as the percentage of total power spectral density [% very low frequency increment (%VLFI)]. %VLFI could be determined in 54 patients (mean age, 52.8 +/- 12.3 years; LVEF, 33.5 +/- 9.8%). SDB defined as AHI > or =15 h(-1) was diagnosed in 57.4% of patients. Percent VLFI was not correlated with AHI (r = 0.12). Receiver-operating characteristic curves constructed using various AHI cut-offs (5-30 h(-1)) failed to identify a %VLFI cut-off associated with SDB. The 2.4% VLFI cut-off recommended for the general population of patients with suspected SDB had low specificity (35%) and low positive and negative predictive values (35% and 54%, respectively). Heart rate increment analysis has several limitations in CHF patients and cannot be recommended as an SDB screening tool in the CHF population.