This study prospectively assessed the time course, magnitude and mechanism of the hemodynamic changes after restoration of sinus rhythm in patients with chronic atrial fibrillation (AF) unassociated with valvular disease. Severe cardiac dysfunction may occur after chronic supraventricular tachycardia in patients with and without underlying cardiac disease. Improvement may follow abolishment of the arrhythmia or adequate slowing of the ventricular rate. Eight patients were studied with a mean previous duration of AF of 10 +/- 9 months. Ejection fraction, exercise capacity and the atrial contribution to the left ventricular filling (only during sinus rhythm) were studied before cardioversion, after cardioversion and 1 week, 1 month and 6 months thereafter. A significant improvement in ejection fraction from 36 +/- 13 to 53 +/- 8% (p < 0.05) occurred at 1 month after cardioversion. Concomitantly, peak oxygen consumption had increased at 1 month, from 20.1 +/- 7 to 25.2 +/- 6 ml/min/kg (p < 0.05). Thereafter, no further improvement in hemodynamic parameters occurred. The atrial systole improved already at 1 week (from 3 +/- 5 to 16 +/- 11%, p < 0.05) and remained unchanged thereafter. Thus, restoration of sinus rhythm was associated with a delayed improvement in ejection fraction and maximal exercise capacity, preceded by an early restoration of atrial contractility and an acute slowing of the heart rate. The discrepancy in time course of restoration of atrial and ventricular function parameters suggests that an intrinsic left ventricular cardiomyopathy is present in patients with AF.