OBJECTIVE: To evaluate the role of nociception in patients with angina despite normal coronary angiograms and to investigate whether any abnormality is confined to visceral or somatosensory perception. METHODS: Perception, pain threshold, and brain evoked potentials to nociceptive electrical stimuli of the oesophageal mucosa and the sternal skin were investigated in 10 patients who had angina but normal coronary angiograms, no other signs of cardiac disease, and normal upper endoscopy. Controls were 10 healthy volunteers. The peaks of the evoked potential signal were designated N for negative deflections and P for positive. Numbers were given to the peaks in order of appearance after the stimulus. The peak to peak amplitudes (P1/N1, N1/P2) were measured in microV. RESULTS: (1) Angina pectoris was provoked in seven patients following continuous oesophageal stimulation. (2) Distant projection of pain occurred after continuous electrical stimulation of the oesophagus in four patients and in no controls. (3) Patients had higher oesophageal pain thresholds (median 16.3 mA v 7.3 mA, P = 0.02) to repeated stimuli than controls, whereas the values did not differ with respect to the skin. There were no intergroup differences in thresholds to single stimuli. (4) Patients had substantially reduced brain evoked potential amplitudes after both single oesophageal (P1/N1, median values: 7.2 microV, controls: 29.0 microV; N1/P2: 16.5 microV, controls: 66.0 microV; P < 0.001 for both) and skin (N1/P2: 13.5 microV; controls: 76.0 microV; P < 0.001) stimuli despite the similar pain thresholds. CONCLUSION: Central nervous system responses to visceral and somatosensory nociceptive input are altered in patients who have angina despite normal coronary angiograms.