Recent studies have challenged the traditional hypothesis that excessive environmental noise is central to the etiology of sleep disruption in the intensive care unit (ICU). We characterized potentially disruptive ICU noise stimuli and patient-care activities and determined their relative contributions to sleep disruption. Furthermore, we studied the effect of noise in isolation by placing healthy subjects in the ICU in both normal and noise-reduced locations. Seven mechanically ventilated patients and six healthy subjects were studied by continuous 24-hour polysomnography with time-synchronized environmental monitoring. Sound elevations occurred 36.5 +/- 20.1 times per hour of sleep and were responsible for 20.9 +/- 11.3% of total arousals and awakenings. Patient-care activities occurred 7.8 +/- 4.2 times per hour of sleep and were responsible for 7.1 +/- 4.4% of total arousals and awakenings. Healthy subjects slept relatively well in the typically loud ICU environment and experienced a quantitative, but not qualitative, improvement in sleep in a noise-reduced, single-patient ICU room. Our data indicate that noise and patient-care activities account for less than 30% of arousals and awakenings and suggest that other elements of the critically ill patient's environment or treatment should be investigated in the pathogenesis of ICU sleep disruption.