A prospective study was performed to evaluate the sensitivity of colour Doppler flow imaging (CDFI) in the detection of occlusive arterial disease in the upper limb (using angiography as the standard) and to quantify the severity of the disease. Twenty-one ischaemic and 15 healthy limbs were studied by intra-arterial digital subtraction angiograms (IADSA) and CDFI. Selective subdavian digital subtraction angiograms were performed by the percutaneous transfemoral route. CDFI was performed from the brachial artery superiorly to the subdavian artery origin. Special attention was paid to the study of spectral waveforms and peak systolic velocities at various levels. In each subject, IADSA and CDFI were performed by different radiologists without knowledge of the results of the other investigation. In normal limbs, all arteries demonstrated a characteristic sharp triphasic spectral pattern with mean peak systolic velocity of 105, 80 and 57 cm/s for the subdavian, axillary and brachial arteries, respectively. In ischaemic limbs, reduction in peak systolic value and broadening of the spectral trace with filling in of the spectral window were noted. More characteristic was the finding of a loss of diastolic flow reversal, which was the earliest sign of significant arterial stenosis. The pattern of diastolic blood flow correlated well with the degree of collateral formation and distal vascular runoff. In conclusion, CDFI has a high sensitivity and specificity in the detection of significant arterial stenosis and is thus an ideal, inexpensive screening procedure. Analysis of the diastolic wave-form distal to the stenosis is an indicator of the degree of collateral circulation and distal runoff and thus acts as a prognostic indicator, guiding further investigation and management.