Near-infrared (NIR) spectroscopy is a noninvasive technique that uses the differential absorption properties of hemoglobin to evaluate skeletal muscle oxygenation. Oxygenated and deoxygenated hemoglobin absorb light equally at 800 nm, whereas at 760 nm absorption is primarily from deoxygenated hemoglobin. Therefore, monitoring these two wavelengths provides an index of deoxygenation. To investigate whether venous oxygen saturation and absorption between 760 and 800 nm (760-800 nm absorption) are correlated, both were measured during forearm exercise. Significant correlations were observed in all subjects (r = 0.92 +/- 0.07; P < 0.05). The contribution of skin flow to the changes in 760-800 nm absorption was investigated by simultaneous measurement of skin flow by laser flow Doppler and NIR recordings during hot water immersion. Changes in skin flow but not 760-800 nm absorption were noted. Intra-arterial infusions of nitroprusside and norepinephrine were performed to study the effect of alteration of muscle perfusion on 760-800 nm absorption. Limb flow was measured with venous plethysmography. Percent oxygenation increased with nitroprusside and decreased with norepinephrine. Finally, the contribution of myoglobin to the 760-800 nm absorption was assessed by using 1H-magnetic resonance spectroscopy. At peak exercise, percent NIR deoxygenation during exercise was 80 +/- 7%, but only one subject exhibited a small deoxygenated myoglobin signal. In conclusion, 760-800 nm absorption is 1) closely correlated with venous oxygen saturation, 2) minimally affected by skin blood flow, 3) altered by changes in limb perfusion, and 4) primarily derived from deoxygenated hemoglobin and not myoglobin.