Background: Chiral local anesthetics, such as ropivacaine and levobupivacaine, have the potential advantage over racemic mixtures in showing reduced toxic side effects. However, these S-(levo, or ' - ')isomers also have reportedly lower potency than their optical antipode, possibly resulting in no advantage in therapeutic index. Potency for local anesthetics inhibiting Na+ channels or action potentials depends on the pattern of membrane potential and so also does the stereopotency ratio. Here the authors have quantitated the stereopotencies of R-, S-, and racemic bupivacaine, comparing several in vitro assays of neuronal Na+ channels with those from in vivo functional nerve block, to establish relative potencies and to understand better the role of different modes of channel inhibition in overall functional anesthesia. Methods: The binding of bupivacaine to Na+ channels was assessed indirectly by its antagonism of [3H]-batrachotoxin binding to rat brain synaptosomes. Inhibition of Na+ currents by bupivacaine was directly assayed in voltage-clamped GH-3 neuroendocrine cells. Neurobehavioral functions were disrupted by bupivacaine percutaneously injected (0.1 ml; 0.0625-1.0%) at the rat sciatic nerve and semiquantitatively assayed. Concentration-dependent actions of R-, S-, and racemic bupivacaine were compared for their magnitude and duration of action. Results: Competitive batrachotoxin displacement has a stereopotency ratio ofR:S = 3:1. Inhibition of Na+ currents with different prepulse potentials shows that S > R potency when the membrane is hyperpolarized, and R > S potency when it is depolarized from normal resting values. Functional deficits assayed in vivo usually demonstrate no consistent enantioselectivity and only a modest stereopotency (R:S = 1.2-1.3) for peak analgesia achieved at the lowest doses. Other functions display no significant stereopotency in either the degree, the duration, or their product (area under the curve) at any dose. Conclusion: Although the in vitro actions of bupivacaine showed stereoselectivity ratios of 1.3-3:1 (R:S), in vivo nerve block at clinically used concentrations showed much smaller ratios for peak effect and no significant enantioselectivity for duration. A primary role for the blockade of resting rather than open or inactivated Na+ channels may explain the modest stereoselectivity in vivo, although stereoselective factors controlling local disposition cannot be ruled out. Levo-(S-)bupivacaine is effectively equipotent to R- or racemic bupivacaine in vivo for rat sciatic nerve block.