Transoesophageal echocardiography is a method of visualising intracardiac thrombi and could therefore be useful for the diagnosis of pulmonary embolism, but its diagnostic value is unknown. The authors carried out a prospective study with this diagnostic tool in massive pulmonary embolism. The study protocol was to perform transthoracic echocardiography in patients with suspected acute pulmonary embolism and then to perform transoesophageal echocardiography when there were signs of acute cor pulmonale. The results of both echocardiographic investigations were compared with two reference radiological techniques: the spiral CT scan and/or pulmonary angiography. Fifty-six patients underwent transthoracic echocardiography. In the 34 patients with transthoracic echocardiographic signs of acute cor pulmonale, the positive predictive value of the investigation for pulmonary embolism was 91% and the negative predictive value was 54%. Twenty of these 34 patients underwent transoesophageal echocardiography. The sensitivity and specificity for the diagnosis of proximal embolism were 85% and 86% respectively. The limitations of the method were poor visualisation of the left pulmonary artery in which only one thrombus was detected, compared with 6 by spiral CT scan, and the absence of visualisation of lobar arteries. Consequently, the real sensitivity of transoesophageal echocardiography for visualisation of all thrombi in the pulmonary arteries in acute cor pulmonale was only 55%. In acute cor pulmonale, the diagnostic value of transoesophageal echocardiography is poor because the sensitivity for visualisation of intra-pulmonary arterial thrombi is low compared with other radiological techniques. However, in patients with proximal emboli in the right or main pulmonary artery, the diagnosis may be established in a few minutes without the need of other more invasive techniques. Nevertheless, normal transoesophageal echocardiography does not rule out the presence of proximal in the left pulmonary artery or distal emboli in the lobar arteries.