In ten mechanically ventilated patients, six with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and four with pulmonary edema, we have partitioned the total respiratory system mechanics into the lung (l) and chest wall (w) mechanics using the esophageal balloon technique together with the airway occlusion technique during constant-flow inflation (J. Appl. Physiol. 58: 1840-1848, 1985). Intrinsic positive end-expiratory pressure (PEEPi) was present in eight patients (range 1.1-9.8 cmH2O) and was due mainly to PEEPi,L (80%), with a minor contribution from PEEPi,w (20%), on the average. The increase in respiratory elastance and resistance was determined mainly by abnormalities in lung elastance and resistance. Chest wall elastance was slightly abnormal (7.3 +/- 2.2 cmH2O/l), and chest wall resistance contributed only 10%, on the average, to the total. The work performed by the ventilator to inflate the lung (WL) averaged 2.04 +/- 0.59 and 1.25 +/- 0.21 J/l in COPD and pulmonary edema patients, respectively, whereas Ww was approximately 0.4 J/l in both groups, i.e., close to normal values. We conclude that, in mechanically ventilated patients, abnormalities in total respiratory system mechanics essentially reflect alterations in lung mechanics. However, abnormalities in chest wall mechanics can be relevant in some COPD patients with a high degree of pulmonary hyperinflation.