High-dose intravenous nicardipine has been shown to reduce the incidence of angiographic and symptomatic vasospasm in patients with aneurysmal subarachnoid hemorrhage (SAH), but treatment may be complicated by side effects, including hypotension or pulmonary edema/azotemia. From August, 1989, to January, 1991, 365 patients at 21 neurosurgical centers were entered into a randomized double-blind trial comparing high-dose (0.15 mg/kg/hr) nicardipine with a 50% lower dose (0.075 mg/kg/hr) administered by continuous intravenous infusion for up to 14 days following SAH. Patients in all neurological grades were eligible for the study. During the study period, 184 patients were randomly assigned to receive high-dose nicardipine and 181 to receive the low dose. There were no significant differences in patient age, admission neurological condition, or amount and distribution of blood clot on initial computerized tomography scan. Patients in the high-dose group received a significantly smaller proportion of the planned dose than those in the low-dose group (80% +/- 0.2% vs. 86% +/- 0.2%, p < 0.05), largely because of premature treatment termination after adverse medical events. The incidence of symptomatic vasospasm was 31% in both groups, and the overall 3-month outcomes were nearly identical. These data suggest that, from a clinical standpoint, the results of high-dose and low-dose nicardipine treatment are virtually equivalent, but administration of low-dose nicardipine is attended by fewer side effects.