In 15 spontaneously breathing patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) divided into two groups, one with normocapnia (A) and one with chronic hypercapnia (B), we evaluated the maximal voluntary inspiratory muscle strength (MIP), the pattern of breathing, the mouth occlusion pressure (Po.1), the neural respiratory drive (NRD), assessed by surface electromyographic (EMG) activity of the diaphragm (EMGd) and EMG activity of intercostal muscles (EMGint), and the chest wall neuromuscular coupling, assessed in terms of Po.1/EMGd ratio. Compared with an age-matched normal control group, both A and B groups exhibited lower MIP, significantly greater EMGd and EMGint, and lower Po.1/EMGd ratio. However, a similar pattern, along with a rapid and shallow breathing, differentiated group B from group A. In group B we found a significant direct relationship between Po.1/EMGd ratio and MIP, and an inverse relationship between PaCO2 and Po.1/EMGd ratio. These data seem to indicate the following: (1) EMG is a more precise method than Po.1 in assessing the magnitude of the NRD; (2) NRD is increased in these patients; and (3) clinical manifestations probably associated with inspiratory muscle fatigue (marked decrease in muscle strength, rapid and shallow breathing, and alveolar hypoventilation) may be accompanied by a greater NRD and a more marked derangement in chest wall neuromuscular coupling in COPD.