We examined the haemodynamic effects of colloid preload, and phenylephrine and ephedrine administered for spinal hypotension, during caesarean section in 42 women with severe early onset pre-eclampsia. Twenty patients with pre-delivery spinal hypotension were randomly allocated to receive an initial dose of either 50 μg phenylephrine or 7.5 mg ephedrine; the primary outcome was percentage change in cardiac index. After a 300-ml colloid preload, mean (SD) cardiac index increased from 4.9 (1.1) to 5.6 (1.2) l.min-1 .m-2 (p < 0.01), resulting from an increase in both heart rate, from 81.3 (17.2) to 86.3 (16.5) beats.min-1 (p = 0.2), and stroke volume, from 111.8 (19.0) to 119.8 (17.9) ml (p = 0.049). Fourteen (33%) and 23 (54.8%) patients exhibited a stroke volume response > 10% and > 5%, respectively; a significant negative correlation was found between heart rate and stroke volume changes. Spinal hypotension in 20 patients was associated with an increase from baseline in cardiac index of 0.6 l.min-1 .m-2 (mean difference 11.5%; p < 0.0001). After a median [range] dose of 50 [50-150] μg phenylephrine or 15 [7.5-37.5] mg ephedrine, the percentage change in cardiac index during the measurement period of 150 s was greater, and negative, in patients receiving phenylephrine vs. ephedrine, at -12.0 (7.3)% vs. 2.6 (6.0)%, respectively (p = 0.0001). The percentage change in heart rate after vasopressor was higher in patients receiving phenylephrine, at -9.1 (3.4)% vs. 5.3 (12.6)% (p = 0.0027), as was the change in systemic vascular resistance, at 22.3 (7.5) vs. -1.9 (10.5)% (p < 0.0001). Phenylephrine effectively reverses spinal anaesthesia-induced haemodynamic changes in severe pre-eclampsia, if left ventricular systolic function is preserved.