Persistent inability to tolerate discontinuation from mechanical ventilation is frequently encountered in patients recovering from acute respiratory failure. We studied the ability of inspiratory pressure support, a new mode of ventilatory assistance, to promote a nonfatiguing respiratory muscle activity in eight patients unsuccessful at weaning from mechanical ventilation. During spontaneous breathing, seven of the eight patients demonstrated electromyographic signs of incipient diaphragmatic fatigue. During ventilation with pressure support at increasing levels, the work of breathing gradually decreased (p less than 0.02) as well as the oxygen consumption of the respiratory muscles (p less than 0.01), and electrical signs suggestive of diaphragmatic fatigue were no longer present. In addition, intrinsic positive end-expiratory pressure was progressively reduced. For each patient an optimal level of pressure support was found (as much as 20 cm H2O), identified as the lowest level maintaining diaphragmatic activity without fatigue. Above this level, diaphragmatic activity was further reduced and untoward effects such as hyperinflation and apnea occurred. When electrical diaphragmatic fatigue occurred, the activity of the sternocleidomastoid muscle was markedly increased, whereas it was minimal when the optimal level was reached. We conclude that in patients demonstrating difficulties in weaning from the ventilator: (1) pressure support ventilation can assist spontaneous breathing and avoid diaphragmatic fatigue (pressure support allows adjustment of the work of each breath to provide an optimal muscle load); (2) clinical monitoring of sternocleidomastoid muscle activity allows the required level of pressure support to be determined to prevent fatigue.