In the long QT syndromes (LQTS), malfunction of ion channels impairs ventricular repolarisation and triggers a characteristic ventricular tachyarrhythmia: torsade de pointes. Symptoms in the LQTS (syncope or cardiac arrest) are caused by this arrhythmia. In congenital LQTS, mutations in the genes encoding for ion chanels cause this channel malfunction. Six genotypes (LQT1 to LQT6) have been identified, and attempts are being made to correlate different mutations with clinical signs and specific therapy. In acquired LQTS, channel malfunction is caused by metabolic abnormalities or drugs. The list of drugs that may impair ion-channel function expands continuously. Moreover, attributes that increase the risk for drug-induced torsade (eg, female sex, recent heart-rate slowing, or hypokalaemia) and electrocardiographic 'warning signs' are recognised. Recent data suggest that patients with an acquired LQTS have some underlying predisposition to proarrhythmia. Mutations causing 'silent' forms of congenital LQTS, in which the patient remains free of arrhythmias until exposed to drugs that further impair repolarisation, are now recognised.