We hypothesized that during high-frequency oscillatory ventilation (HFOV), a reduction of peak-to-peak oscillatory pressure along the endotracheal tube is maximal when respiratory system compliance is maximal. We made a mathematical model of the endotracheal tube and the respiratory system of a neonate suffering from idiopathic respiratory distress syndrome (IRDS). The model consisted of linear viscous and inertive elements, a non-linear endotracheal tube resistance, and a non-linear compliance allowing for alveolar recruitment and overdistention. Respiratory compliance was maximal at the transition between maximal recruitment and minimal overdistention. A new variable, the oscillatory pressure ratio (OPR), was defined as the ratio between peak-to-peak oscillatory pressures at the distal end and the proximal opening of the endotracheal tube, respectively. The respiratory variables of four patients were fed into the model, and the relationship between respiratory system compliance and OPR was determined. OPR decreased as compliance increased, except for very low compliances below where 0.08 mL. cm H2O(-1), and OPR increased with increasing compliance. The relationship between mean airway pressure P(aw) and OPR revealed that the minimal OPR (range, 0.37-0.78) and maximal respiratory compliance coincided at the same P(aw). However, the relationship did depend on oscillation frequency, applied oscillatory pressure, and endotracheal tube resistance, parameters that may change during clinical application of HFOV. When 81 permutations of nominal and extreme respiratory variables were used in the model, the minimum OPR (0.60 +/- 0.23) and maximum compliance coincided in all cases. These model experiments support our hypothesis. The results indicate that the OPR may be a useful index to optimize lung expansion, where lung recruitment is maximal and overdistention minimal. In vivo tests will be needed to reveal the feasibility and reliability of such an index for biomedical and clinical application.