A cardinal feature of impaired skeletal muscle oxidative metabolism in mitochondrial myopathies is a limited ability to increase the extraction of O(2) from blood relative to the increase in O(2) delivery by the circulation during exercise. We investigated whether aerobic forearm exercise would result in an abnormal increase in venous effluent O(2) in patients with impaired skeletal muscle oxidative phosphorylation attributable to mitochondrial disease. We monitored the partial pressure of O(2) (PO(2)) in cubital venous blood at rest, during handgrip exercise, and during recovery in 13 patients with mitochondrial myopathy and exercise intolerance and in 13 healthy control and 11 patient control subjects. Resting and recovery venous effluent PO(2) were similar in all subjects, but during exercise venous PO(2) paradoxically rose in mitochondrial myopathy patients from 27.2 +/- 4.0mmHg to 38.2 +/- 13.3mmHg, whereas PO(2) fell from 27.2 +/- 4.2mmHg to 24.2 +/- 2.7mmHg in healthy subjects and from 27.4 +/- 9.5mmHg to 22.2 +/- 5.2mmHg in patient controls. The range of elevated venous PO(2) during forearm exercise in mitochondrial myopathy patients (32 to 82mmHg) correlated closely with the severity of oxidative impairment as assessed during cycle exercise. We conclude that measurement of venous PO(2) during aerobic forearm exercise provides an easily performed screening test that sensitively detects impaired O(2) use and accurately assesses the severity of oxidative impairment in patients with mitochondrial myopathy and exercise intolerance.