Previous studies have demonstrated that lung volume during wakefulness influences upper airway size and resistance, particularly in patients with sleep apnea. We sought to determine the influence of lung volume on the level of continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) required to prevent flow limitation during non-REM sleep in subjects with sleep apnea. Seventeen subjects (apnea-hypopnea index, 42.6 +/- 6.2 [SEM]) were studied during stable non-REM sleep in a rigid head-out shell equipped with a positive/negative pressure attachment for manipulation of extrathoracic pressure. An epiglottic pressure catheter plus a mask/pneumotachometer were used to assess flow limitation. When lung volume was increased by 1,035 +/- 22 ml, the CPAP level could be decreased from 11.9 +/- 0.7 to 4.8 +/- 0.7 cm H(2)O (p < 0.001) without flow limitation. The decreased CPAP at the same negative extrathoracic pressure yielded a final lung volume increase of 421 +/- 36 ml above the initial value. Conversely, when lung volume was reduced by 732 +/- 74 ml (n = 8), the CPAP level had to be increased from 11.9 +/- 0.7 to 17.1 +/- 1.0 cm H(2)O (p < 0.001) to prevent flow limitation, with a final lung volume decrease of 567 +/- 78 ml. These results demonstrate that relatively small changes in lung volume have an important effect on the upper airway in subjects with sleep apnea during non-REM sleep.