The autonomic nervous system may be disturbed in chronic respiratory failure. We tested the hypothesis that there is increased sympathetic activity in patients with chronic hypoxemia. Furthermore, we examined the effect of short-term oxygen on muscle sympathetic nerve activity (MSNA) in these patients. We performed microneurography of the peroneal nerve in 11 patients with hypoxemia due to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD, n = 6) or lung fibrosis (n = 5) and in 11 healthy subjects matched for age and sex. MSNA was measured during normal breathing in all subjects. In eight patients and in seven control subjects, MSNA was also measured during nasal oxygen (4 L/min). MSNA was higher in the patients with chronic respiratory failure compared with the healthy subjects during normal breathing (61 +/- 5 versus 34 +/- 2 bursts/min, mean +/- SEM; p = 0.0002, paired t test). During oxygen administration, MSNA decreased from 63 +/- 6 to 56 +/- 6 bursts/min in the patients (p = 0.0004, ANOVA); there was no change in sympathetic activity in the control subjects. For the first time, there is direct evidence of marked sympathetic activation in patients with chronic respiratory failure. This is partly explained by arterial chemoreflex activation and may play an important role in the pathogenesis of the disease.