The effect of acute pericardial tamponade on pulmonary venous return was assessed by transesophageal pulsed Doppler echocardiography. In 14 open-chest anesthetized dogs peak pulmonary venous flow velocities in systole (VJ) and in diastole (VK) were measured during apnea and atrial pacing while acute tamponade was induced by intrapericardial instillation of 0.9% sodium chloride solution. Before intravascular volume expansion, induction of acute tamponade resulted in a significant decline in VK (43 +/- 17 to 19 +/- 8 cm/sec; p < 0.05) but no change in VJ or the ratio VJ/VK. After intravascular volume expansion, induction of acute tamponade resulted in significant reductions in VJ (43 +/- 9 to 29 +/- 10 cm/sec; p < 0.001) and VK (37 +/- 19 to 15 +/- 11 cm/sec; p < 0.001). The effect was disproportionately greater on VK, however, resulting in a significant increase in VJ/VK (1.51 +/- 0.84 to 2.58 +/- 1.41; p < 0.001). The disproportionate effect of acute tamponade on VK suggests that increased pericardial pressure directly constrains diastolic filling of the left atrium as a conduit to the left ventricle and that it does not decrease the systolic and diastolic phases of pulmonary venous return uniformly. Intravascular volume expansion increases cardiac output before acute tamponade, but during acute tamponade it amplifies the disproportionate impact of increased pericardial pressure on left ventricular diastolic filling as the left ventricle is constrained within the fluid-filled pericardial sac.