Patients with severe acute respiratory distress syndrome who die usually succumb to multiorgan failure as opposed to hypoxia. Despite appropriate resuscitation, some patients' symptoms persist on a downward spiral, apparently propagated by an uncontained systemic inflammatory response. This phenomenon is not well understood. However, a novel hypothesis to explain this observation proposes that it is related to the life-saving ventilatory support used to treat the respiratory failure. According to this hypothesis, mechanical ventilation per se, by altering both the magnitude and the pattern of lung stretch, can cause changes in gene expression and/or cellular metabolism that ultimately can lead to the development of an overwhelming inflammatory response-even in the absence of overt structural damage. This mechanism of injury has been termed biotrauma. In this review we explore the biotrauma hypothesis, the causal relationship between biophysical injury and organ failure, and its implications for the future therapy and management of critically ill patients.