Conflicting data are available on the relative contribution of the chest wall (cw) to the intrinsic positive end-expiratory pressure of the total respiratory system (PEEPi,rs) in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). In order to assess the chest wall and lung contribution to the elastic properties of the respiratory system in COPD patients during acute ventilatory failure, using the "interrupter technique", static inflation volume-pressure (V-P) curves of the total respiratory system (rs), lung (L) and cw were obtained in seven mechanically-ventilated COPD patients during application of zero end-expiratory pressure (ZEEP) and different levels (0-15 cmH2O) of PEEP. On ZEEP, PEEPi,rs was present in all patients (range 10.5-13.1 cmH2O), to which PEEPi,cw and PEEPi,L contributed 17 +/- 2 and 83 +/- 1%, respectively. The static V-P curves of the rs, L, and cw on ZEEP were concave toward the horizontal axis, indicating that elastance increased with inflating volume. Application of PEEP did not affect lung and chest wall mechanics until PEEP levels exceeding 90% of PEEPi,cw on ZEEP (critical value of PEEP (Pcrit)). At PEEP levels higher than Pcrit, and relative to the V-P curves on ZEEP, we observed that: 1) the V-P curve of the rs showed an initial shift along the curve on ZEEP followed by a downward displacement with inflating volume; 2) the V-P curve of the L was shifted along the curve on ZEEP throughout inflating volume; and 3) the V-P curve of the cw was initially displaced along the curve on ZEEP, whilst a downward displacement appeared at higher lung volume. In conclusion, our data show that, in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease patients with flow limitation, the increase in pleural pressure does not make a significant contribution to the intrinsic positive end-expiratory pressure of the total respiratory system. However, during tidal ventilation, a substantial increase in elastance of the chest wall is present. The critical values of positive end-expiratory pressure below which there are no changes in chest wall and lung mechanics amount to 90% of the total PEEPi,rs on ZEEP. Positive end-expiratory pressure levels higher than such critical value cause important alterations of the elastic properties of the lung and chest wall.