Coronary perfusion pressure (CPP), the aortic-to-right atrial pressure gradient during the relaxation phase of cardiopulmonary resuscitation, was measured in 100 patients with cardiac arrest. Coronary perfusion pressure and other variables were compared in patients with and without return of spontaneous circulation (ROSC). Twenty-four patients had ROSC. Initial CPP (mean +/- SD) was 1.6 +/- 8.5 mm Hg in patients without ROSC and 13.4 +/- 8.5 mm Hg in those with ROSC. The maximal CPP measured was 8.4 +/- 10.0 mm Hg in those without ROSC and 25.6 +/- 7.7 mm Hg in those with ROSC. Differences were also found for the maximal aortic relaxation pressure, the compression-phase aortic-to-right atrial gradient, and the arterial PO2. No patient with an initial CPP less than 0 mm Hg had ROSC. Only patients with maximal CPPs of 15 mm Hg or more had ROSC, and the fraction of patients with ROSC increased as the maximal CPP increased. A CPP above 15 mm Hg did not guarantee ROSC, however, as 18 patients whose CPPs were 15 mm Hg or greater did not resuscitate. Of variables measured, maximal CPP was most predictive of ROSC, and all CPP measurements were more predictive than was aortic pressure alone. The study substantiates animal data that indicate the importance of CPP during cardiopulmonary resuscitation.