OBJECTIVE--To assess by quantitative analysis the immediate angiographic results of directional coronary atherectomy. To compare the effects of successful atherectomy with those of successful balloon dilatation in a series of patients with matched lesions. DESIGN--Case series. SETTING--Tertiary referral centre. PATIENTS--62 patients in whom directional coronary atherectomy was attempted between 7 September 1989 and 31 December 1990. INTERVENTIONS--Directional coronary atherectomy. MAIN OUTCOME MEASURES--Increase in minimal luminal diameter of coronary artery segment. RESULTS--Angiographic success on the basis of intention to treat was obtained in 54 patients (87%). In four patients the lesion could not be crossed by the atherectomy device; all four had an uneventful conventional balloon angioplasty. Four of the 58 patients who underwent atherectomy were subsequently referred for coronary bypass surgery because of failure or complications; three of them sustained a transmural infarction. In the successful cases, coronary atherectomy resulted in an increase in the minimal luminal diameter from 1.1 mm to 2.5 mm with a concomitant decrease of the diameter stenosis from 62% to 22%. In the subset of 37 patients in which the changes induced were compared with conventional balloon angioplasty atherectomy increased the minimal luminal diameter more than balloon angioplasty (1.6 v 0.8 mm; p less than 0.0001). Conventional histology showed media or adventitia in 26% of the atherectomy specimens. In hospital complications occurred in six patients who had undergone a successful procedure: two transmural infarctions, two subendocardial infarctions, one transient ischaemia attack, and one death due to delayed rupture of the atherectomised vessel. All patients were clinically evaluated at one and six months. One patient had persisting angina (New York Heart Association class II), one patient sustained a myocardial infarction, one patient underwent a percutaneous transluminal coronary angioplasty for early restenosis, and one patient underwent coronary bypass surgery because of a coronary aneurysm formation. At six months 80% (36/47) of the patients were symptom free. CONCLUSIONS--Coronary atherectomy achieved a better immediate angiographic result than balloon angioplasty; however, in view of the complication rate in this preliminary series, which may be related to a learning curve, a randomised study is needed to show whether this procedure is as safe as a conventional balloon angioplasty.