In ventilated patients with acute lung injury (ALI) we investigated whether respiratory changes in arterial pulse pressure (DeltaPP) could be related to the effects of PEEP and fluid loading (FL) on cardiac index (CI). Measurements were performed before and after application of a PEEP (10 cm H2O) in 14 patients. When the PEEP-induced decrease in CI was > 10% (six patients), measurements were also performed after FL. Maximal (PPmax) and minimal (PPmin) values of pulse pressure were determined over one respiratory cycle and DeltaPP was calculated: DeltaPP (%) = 100 x ((PPmax - PPmin)/ ([PPmax + PPmin]/2)). PEEP decreased CI from 4.2 +/- 1.1 to 3.8 +/- 1.3 L/min/m2 (p < 0.01) and increased DeltaPP from 9 +/- 7 to 16 +/- 13% (p < 0.01). The PEEP-induced changes in CI correlated with DeltaPP on ZEEP (r = -0.91, p < 0.001) and with the PEEP-induced increase in DeltaPP (r = -0.79, p < 0.001). FL increased CI from 3.5 +/- 1.1 to 4.2 +/- 0.9 L/min/m2 (p < 0.05) and decreased DeltaPP from 27 +/- 13 to 14 +/- 9% (p < 0.05). The FL-induced changes in CI correlated with DeltaPP before FL (r = 0.97, p < 0.01) and with the FL-induced decrease in DeltaPP (r = -0.85, p < 0.05). In ventilated patients with ALI, DeltaPP may be useful in predicting and assessing the hemodynamic effects of PEEP and FL.