BACKGROUND: Lung volume reduction (LVR) has recently been used to treat severe emphysema. About 25% of the volume of each lung is removed with this method. Little is known about the mechanism of functional improvement so a study was undertaken to investigate the changes in ventilatory mechanics and diaphragmatic function in eight patients after LVR. METHODS: Measurements of work of breathing (WOB), intrinsic positive end expiratory pressure (PEEPi), dynamic compliance (Cdyn), and arterial carbon dioxide tension (PaCO2) were performed on the day before surgery and daily for seven days after surgery, as well as one, three, and six months after surgery. All measurements were performed on spontaneously breathing patients, simultaneously assessing oesophageal pressure via an oesophageal balloon catheter and air flow via a tightly adjusted mask. Diaphragmatic function was evaluated by measuring oesophageal and transdiaphragmatic pressure (Pdi) preoperatively and at one, three, and six months postoperatively. RESULTS: Mean forced expiratory volume in one second (FEV1) was 23 (3.6)% predicted, and all patients were oxygen dependent before the-operation. One day after LVR the mean decrease in WOB was 0.93 (95% confidence interval (CI) 0.46 to 1.40) joule/l, the mean decrease in PEEPi was 0.61 (95% CI 0.35 to 0.87) kPa, and the mean increase in Cdyn was 182.5 (95% CI 80.0 to 284.2) ml/kPa. Similar changes were found seven days and six months after surgery. PaCO2 was higher on the day after the operation but was significantly reduced six months later. Pdi was increased three and six months after surgery. CONCLUSIONS: Ventilatory mechanics improved immediately after LVR, probably by decompression of lung tissue and relief of thoracic distension. An improvement in diaphragmatic function three and six months postoperatively also contributes to improved respiratory function after LVR.