Experiments were performed in the normal rat knee joint to investigate the role of different isoforms of cyclooxygenase (COX) in the regulation of basal joint blood flow. Laser Doppler imaging (LDI) was used to measure articular perfusion, and reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) for the detection of COX-1 and COX-2 mRNA in joint tissue. Intravenous infusion of indomethacin (a non-selective inhibitor of COX; 0.34 nmol min(-1)) over 40 min produced a time dependent increase in articular vascular resistance (maximum 22.5 % at 40 min; P < 0.0001, one-way ANOVA) whereas vehicle over a similar time period had no effect in a control group. An equimolar concentration of a highly selective inhibitor for COX-2, SC-236, was administered in a further group of rats but this did not increase articular vascular resistance. While there was no significant difference between the response to vehicle and SC-236 (two-way ANOVA; P = 0.686, n = 6) the response to indomethacin was significantly greater than vehicle or SC-236 (two-way Anova; P < 0.0001, n = 6). COX-1, but not COX-2, was detectable by RT-PCR in all joint tissue samples examined (n = 4). The results of this study indicate that prostaglandins (PGs) play an important role in the maintenance of basal perfusion in the rat knee joint, with COX-1 being the physiologically relevant isoform. Experimental Physiology (2001) 86.2, 191-197.