The present study was designed to determine whether magnesium (Mg) deficiency is present in patients with essential hypertension. We measured the retention of an intravenously administered Mg load (0.2 mmol/kg MgSO4 over 4 h), and serum and erythrocyte Mg concentrations in 17 inpatients with essential hypertension and in 15 normotensive controls. There was no significant difference between the two groups in erythrocyte Mg concentration (normotensives vs., hypertensives: 2.0 +/- 0.5 vs. 2.1 +/- 0.4 mmol/l cells), serum Mg concentration (normotensives vs. hypertensive: 2.1 +/- 0.2 vs. 2.1 +/- 0.2 mg/dl), or in urinary Mg excretion (normotensives vs. hypertensives: 65.8 +/- 25.5 vs. 73.7 +/- 26.7 mg/day). However, Mg retention was significantly higher in hypertensives than in normotensives (normotensives vs. hypertensives: 31.8 +/- 12.1 vs. 41.9 +/- 13.3%). These results suggest that a systemic Mg deficiency, which is undectectable by serum or erythrocyte Mg determination, may exist in patients with essential hypertension.