We used optoelectronic plethysmography to study 11 normal subjects during quiet and deep breathing, six sedated and paralyzed patients with acute lung injury and acute respiratory distress syndrome (ALI/ARDS) receiving continuous positive pressure ventilation (CPPV) (positive end-expiratory pressure [PEEP] = 10 cm H(2)O, tidal volume [VT] = 300, 600, 900 ml), and seven ALI/ARDS patients receiving pressure support ventilation (PSV) (PEEP 10 cm H(2)O, pressure support = 5, 10, 15, 25 cm H(2)O). The volumes measured using optoelectronic plethysmography were compared with measurements taken using spirometry and pneumotachography. The three methods were highly correlated. The discrepancies found were 1.7 +/- 5.9%, -1.6 +/- 5.4%, and 4.9 +/- 6.4% when comparing optoelectronic plethysmography with spirometry, optoelectronic plethysmography with pneumotachography, and spirometry with pneumotachography, respectively. Accuracy of the compartmentalization procedure (upper thorax, lower thorax, and abdomen) was assessed by calculating compartmental volume changes during isovolume maneuvers. The discrepancy from the ideal zero line was -2.1 +/- 48.3 ml. Abdominal contribution to inspired volume was greater for normal subjects than for PSV patients (63 +/- 11% versus 43 +/- 14%, p < 0.001). It decreased with VT for normal subjects (48.5 +/- 15%, p < 0.05), whereas it increased for CPPV patients (61 +/- 10%, p < 0.05). No significant distribution differences were found between 5 and 25 cm H(2)O PSV. We conclude that optoelectronic plethysmography is a feasible technique able to provide unique data on the distribution of chest wall volume changes in intensive care patients.