Secondary lymphatic valves are essential for minimizing backflow of lymph and are presumed to gate passively according to the instantaneous trans-valve pressure gradient. We hypothesized that valve gating is also modulated by vessel distention, which could alter leaflet stiffness and coaptation. To test this hypothesis, we devised protocols to measure the small pressure gradients required to open or close lymphatic valves and determine if the gradients varied as a function of vessel diameter. Lymphatic vessels were isolated from rat mesentery, cannulated, and pressurized using a servo-control system. Detection of valve leaflet position simultaneously with diameter and intraluminal pressure changes in two-valve segments revealed the detailed temporal relationships between these parameters during the lymphatic contraction cycle. The timing of valve movements was similar to that of cardiac valves, but only when lymphatic vessel afterload was elevated. The pressure gradients required to open or close a valve were determined in one-valve segments during slow, ramp-wise pressure elevation, either from the input or output side of the valve. Tests were conducted over a wide range of baseline pressures (and thus diameters) in passive vessels as well as in vessels with two levels of imposed tone. Surprisingly, the pressure gradient required for valve closure varied >20-fold (0.1-2.2 cmH(2)O) as a passive vessel progressively distended. Similarly, the pressure gradient required for valve opening varied sixfold with vessel distention. Finally, our functional evidence supports the concept that lymphatic muscle tone exerts an indirect effect on valve gating.