Polymorphonuclear leukocyte (PMN) participation in the pathophysiology of the reperfusion injury following skeletal muscle ischemia has become recognized. We measured the activation of PMNs as evidenced by production of superoxide anion (O2-) in the isolated canine gracilis muscle preparation of ischemia-reperfusion injury. PMNs were isolated from the gracilis muscle venous effluent and central venous blood after 6 hr of bilateral gracilis ischemia and 1 hr of reperfusion in five dogs. Baseline samples were obtained prior to ischemia from the central venous circulation. Liberation of O2- from PMNs and from PMNs stimulated by opsonized zymosan was determined by measuring ferricytochrome reduction. Results are expressed as nanomoles of O2- produced/2 x 10(6) PMN +/- SEM. O2- production by unstimulated cells was increased from 0.33 +/- 0.15 nmole in the baseline samples to 0.96 +/- 0.08 nmole in the central venous sample (P less than 0.01). With stimulation by zymosan, production increased from 10.3 +/- 1.4 nmole in the baseline samples to 15.2 +/- 1.1 nmole in the central venous sample (P less than 0.05) and to 15.5 +/- 0.9 nmole in the gracilis venous sample (P less than 0.01). These increases in superoxide production were not seen in the three sham-operated animals. Mean infarct size determined by planimetry was 55%. O2- produced by PMNs from central venous blood correlated with infarct size (r = 0.934, P = 0.02). These data imply that PMNs are activated by muscular ischemia, and the degree of activation is directly related to the extent of the muscle infarction.