Exertional dyspnea in patients with heart failure may be due, in part, to respiratory muscle underperfusion. Near-infrared spectroscopy is a new technique that permits noninvasive assessment of skeletal muscle oxygenation by monitoring changes in near-infrared light absorption. With use of near-infrared spectroscopy, serratus anterior muscle oxygenation during maximal bicycle exercise was compared in 10 patients with heart failure (ejection fraction 16 +/- 5%) and 7 age-matched normal subjects. Oxygen consumption (VO2), minute ventilation (VE) and arterial saturation were also measured. Changes in difference in absorption between 760 and 800 nm, expressed in arbitrary units, were used to detect muscle deoxygenation. Minimal change in this difference in absorption occurred in normal subjects during exercise, whereas patients with heart failure exhibited progressive changes throughout exercise consistent with respiratory muscle deoxygenation (peak exercise: normal 3 +/- 6, heart failure 12 +/- 4 near-infrared arbitrary units, p less than 0.001). At comparable work loads patients with heart failure had significantly greater minute ventilation and respiratory rate but similar tidal volume when contrasted with normal subjects. However, at peak exercise normal subjects achieved significantly greater minute ventilation and tidal volume with a comparable respiratory rate. No significant arterial desaturation occurred during exercise in either group. These findings indicate that respiratory muscle deoxygenation occurs in patients with heart failure during exercise. This deoxygenation may contribute to the exertional dyspnea experienced by such patients.