Increased blood and plasma viscosity has been described in patients with coronary and peripheral arterial disease. However, the relation of viscosity to the extent of arterial wall deterioration--the most important determinant of clinical manifestation and prognosis of the disease--is not well known. Therefore, the authors studied plasma viscosity as one of the major determinants of blood viscosity in patients with different stages of arterial disease of lower limbs (according to Fontaine) and its relation to the presence of some risk factors of atherosclerosis. The study encompassed four groups of subjects: 19 healthy volunteers (group A), 18 patients with intermittent claudication up to 200 m (stage II; group B), 15 patients with critical ischemia of lower limbs (stage III and IV; group C), and 16 patients with recanalization procedures on peripheral arteries. Venous blood samples were collected from an antecubital vein without stasis for the determination of plasma viscosity (with a rotational capillary microviscometer, PAAR), fibrinogen, total cholesterol, alpha-2-macroglobulin, and glucose concentrations. In patients with recanalization procedure local plasma viscosity was also determined from blood samples taken from a vein on the dorsum of the foot. Plasma viscosity was most significantly elevated in the patients with critical ischemia (1.78 mPa.sec) and was significantly higher than in the claudicants (1.68 mPa.sec), and the claudicants also had significantly higher viscosity than the controls (1.58 mPa.sec). In patients in whom a recanalization procedure was performed, no differences in systemic and local plasma viscosity were detected, neither before nor after recanalization of the diseased artery. In all groups plasma viscosity was correlated with fibrinogen concentration (r=0.70, P < 0.01) and total cholesterol concentration (r=0.24, P < 0.05), but in group C (critical ischemia) plasma viscosity was most closely linked to the concentration of alpha-2-macroglobulin (r=0.78, P < 0.01). These results indicate that in patients with peripheral arterial disease plasma viscosity increases with the progression of the atherosclerotic process and is correlated with the clinical stages of the disease.