Conventional ventilatory support of patients with the adult respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) consists of volume-cycled ventilation with applied positive end-expiratory pressure (PEEP). Unfortunately, recent evidence suggests that this strategy, as currently implemented, may perpetuate lung damage by overinflating and injuring distensible alveolar tissues. An alternative strategy--termed inverse ratio ventilation (IRV)--extends the inspiratory time, and, in concept, maintains or improves gas exchange at lower levels of PEEP and peak distending pressures. There are two methods to administer IRV: (1) volume-cycled ventilation with an end-inspiratory pause, or with a slow or decelerating inspiratory flow rate; or (2) pressure-controlled ventilation applied with a long inspiratory time. There are several real or theoretical problems common to both forms of IRV: excessive gas-trapping; adverse hemodynamic effects; and the need for sedation in most patients. Although there are many anecdotal reports of IRV, there are no controlled studies that compare outcome in ARDS patients treated with IRV as opposed to conventional ventilation. Nonetheless, clinicians are using IRV with increasing frequency. In the absence of well-designed clinical trials, we present interim guidelines for a ventilatory strategy in patients with ARDS based on the literature and our own clinical experience.