Recent studies have suggested that topical hypothermia may be unnecessary during coronary bypass operations because of possible pulmonary complications resulting from phrenic nerve damage. This study was undertaken to determine whether topical hypothermia is necessary for optimal myocardial protection when distribution of the cardioplegic solution is heterogeneous because of coronary occlusions. Twenty pigs were subjected to 120 minutes of ischemic arrest with multidose potassium crystalloid cardioplegia (4 degrees C). During arrest, the mid-left anterior descending coronary artery was occluded with a snare that was released on reperfusion. Ten of these pigs received topical hypothermia and 10 others served as controls. Hearts protected with topical hypothermia had lower temperatures in the left anterior descending (7.0 degrees +/- 0.7 degree C versus 18.5 degrees +/- 0.5 degree C; p less than 0.05) and circumflex regions (8.9 degrees +/- 0.5 degree C versus 15.5 degrees +/- 0.5 degree C; p less than 0.05). The pH values were higher in hearts protected with topical hypothermia in both the left anterior descending (7.36 +/- 0.09 versus 6.73 degrees +/- 0.07; p less than 0.05) and circumflex regions (7.40 +/- 0.07 versus 7.05 +/- 0.07; p less than 0.05). Topical hypothermia also resulted in better preservation of postischemic stroke work index (0.64 +/- 0.06 versus 0.40 +/- 0.08 gm-m/kg; p less than 0.05) and wall motion scores (1.0 +/- 0.3 hypothermia versus 1.8 +/- 0.4 no hypothermia; p less than 0.05). We conclude that topical hypothermia affords maximal myocardial protection when coronary occlusions are present and should be used during all coronary operations.