Single voltage-activated Na+ channel currents were obtained from membrane patches of isolated ventricular cells of guinea pig hearts. The currents were compared when measured from cell-attached patches and from the same patch but at least 20 minutes after manual excision. The averaged currents showed a distinctly delayed decay in the excised patches due to the appearance of long lasting openings or bursts of openings. In contrast to control patches, the open time distribution in excised patches requires at least two exponentials. A short mean open time was voltage independent for cell-attached patches (0.38 ms +/- 0.07 ms between -60 and -20 mV, 6 cell-attached patches; and 0.41 +/- 0.1 ms, 7 excised patches). The long mean open time found in excised patches was clearly voltage dependent and increased from 0.48 +/- 0.14 ms (-80 mV) to 2.87 +/- 0.35 ms (-20 mV, regression coefficient +0.88, 7 patches). Sweeps with long openings appeared in clusters. The clustering of records with long openings, short openings, or without openings (nulls) was quantified by a runs analysis which showed a highly significant nonrandom ordering. The results show that in excised patches inactivation is temporally hibernating.