The hemodynamic effects of increases in airway pressure (Paw) are related in part to Paw-induced increases in right atrial pressure (Pra), the downstream pressure for venous return, thus decreasing the pressure gradient for venous return. However, numerous animal and clinical studies have shown that venous return is often sustained during ventilation with positive end-expiratory pressure (PEEP). Potentially, PEEP-induced diaphragmatic descent increases abdominal pressure (Pabd). We hypothesized that an increase in Paw induced by PEEP would minimally alter venous return because the associated increase in Pra would be partially offset by a concomitant increase in Pabd. Thus we studied the acute effects of graded increases of Paw on Pra, Pabd, and cardiac output by application of inspiratory-hold maneuvers in sedated and paralyzed humans. Forty-two patients were studied in the intensive care unit after coronary artery bypass surgery during hemodynamically stable, fluid-resuscitated conditions. Paw was progressively increased in steps of 2 to 4 cmH(2)O from 0 to 20 cmH(2)O in sequential 25-s inspiratory-hold maneuvers. Right ventricular (RV) cardiac output (CO(td)) and RV ejection fraction (EF(rv)) were measured at 5 s into the inspiratory-hold maneuver by the thermodilution technique. RV end-diastolic volume and stroke volume were calculated from EF(rv) and heart rate data, and Pra was measured from the pulmonary artery catheter. Pabd was estimated as bladder pressure. We found that, although increasing Paw progressively increased Pra, neither CO(td) nor RV end-diastolic volume changed. The ratio of change (Delta) in Paw to Delta Pra was 0.32 +/- 0.20. The ratio of Delta Pra to Delta CO(td) was 0.05 +/- 00.15 l x min(-1) x mmHg(-1). However, Pabd increased such that the ratio of Delta Pra to Delta Pabd was 0.73 +/- 0.36, meaning that most of the increase in Pra was reflected in increases in Pabd. We conclude that, in hemodynamically stable fluid-resuscitated postoperative surgical patients, inspiratory-hold maneuvers with increases in Paw of up to 20 cmH(2)O have minimal effects on cardiac output, primarily because of an in-phase-associated pressurization of the abdominal compartment associated with compression of the liver and squeezing of the lungs.