Long-term treatment of hypertensive rats with arterial vasodilators may further increase left ventricular hypertrophy. Since left ventricular hypertrophy may be an important determinant of outcome in hypertension, the long-term effects of arterial vasodilation with hydralazine on left ventricular mass and function were compared with those of an alternative third-line drug, the alpha1 blocker prazosin, in patients still hypertensive despite combined diuretic and beta blocker therapy. A single-blind, randomized, two-group parallel design was employed. Both treatments induced a sustained antihypertensive effect, with hydralazine showing more effect on supine blood pressure, and prazosin having more effect on standing pressure. Heart rate, cardiac output, and volume status showed only minor changes. Plasma norepinephrine showed a sustained increase when measured in both the supine and standing positions, but the increases were similar for the two treatments. Supine and standing plasma renin activity increased only during long-term treatment with hydralazine. Prazosin induced a progressive decrease in left ventricular mass over time (-34 +/- 15 g/m2 at 12 months), but hydralazine did not (-9 +/- 10 g/m2 after 12 months). Stepwise regression indicated that a decrease in systolic blood pressure was associated with a decrease in left ventricular mass with both treatments, but an increase in plasma norepinephrine was associated with an increase in left ventricular mass only with hydralazine, suggesting that increased sympathetic activity may affect left ventricular mass via cardiac alpha1 receptors. Thus, if regression of left ventricular hypertrophy is a worthwhile therapeutic goal, hydralazine and analogous arterial vasodilators are not drugs of choice.