Elevated pulmonary vascular resistance is a known risk factor for early death from acute right ventricular failure after orthotopic cardiac transplantation. Patients in whom the elevated pulmonary vascular resistance is due primarily to increased left atrial pressure ("reactive") frequently have normalization of resistance after transplantation, but few studies have detailed the time course and magnitude of these changes. To analyze the response of pulmonary vascular resistance to cardiac transplantation, we analyzed data from 4353 right heart catheterizations on all 182 patients undergoing cardiac transplantation between 1981 and Jan. 1, 1990. Before transplantation 18% of patients had a pulmonary vascular resistance greater than 4 WU, 16% had a pulmonary artery systolic pressure greater than 60 mm Hg, and 16% had a transpulmonary gradient greater than 14 mm Hg. In the overall group of patients, pulmonary vascular resistance (mean value 2.63 WU), transpulmonary gradient (mean value 9.9 mm Hg), and pulmonary artery systolic pressure (mean value 48.0 mm Hg) were normalized within 1 week of cardiac transplantation. In patients with a high preoperative pulmonary vascular resistance (greater than or equal to 4 WU), the resistance fell promptly within 1 week of transplantation but continued to be slightly elevated throughout the period of follow-up. By multiple regression analysis, pulmonary vascular resistance at 1 week and 1 year after transplantation was significantly correlated with the pretransplantation resistance. Pulmonary vascular resistance anytime after transplantation was related to preoperative resistance, body surface area, and pulmonary artery diastolic pressure. Inferences: (1) As a group, cardiac transplant recipients have a normal pulmonary vascular resistance, transpulmonary gradient, and pulmonary artery systolic pressure within 1 week after transplantation with little change thereafter for at least several years. (2) Patients with reversible elevation of pulmonary vascular resistance before cardiac transplantation typically have a reactive and a fixed component. Cardiac transplantation relieves the reactive but not the fixed component. As a result, pulmonary vascular resistance early (within 1 week) and late after transplantation will have fallen but not completely normalized.