Massive elevation of intra-abdominal pressure (IAP) causes cardiovascular, respiratory, and renal dysfunction. We managed eight patients with high IAP (mean 51 +/- 7 cm H2O), six of whom had hemodynamic measurements; a clinical syndrome, characterized by hemodynamic, respiratory, and renal dysfunction, then became apparent. We report a) a baseline cardiopulmonary profile and response to an acute vascular volume challenge in six patients and b) surgical decompression of the abdomen in four patients. The clinical impression of hypovolemia was confused by small to normal left ventricular end-diastolic volume (64 +/- 14 ml) and normal ejection fraction (55 +/- 6%) despite very high right and left atrial filling pressures. Complete ventilatory support was necessary to maintain oxygenation and ventilation; oliguria (urine output less than 10 ml/h) was present. Pericardial effusion was absent. After fluid challenge (10 ml/kg of colloid or crystalloid infused iv over 10 min), filling pressures, cardiac output, and stroke volume all increased significantly (p less than .025) while heart rate decreased. Surgical decompression of the abdomen improved oxygenation, ventilation, cardiac output, atrial filling pressures, and urine output within 15 min. The cardiovascular effects of massively elevated IAP compounded by the requisite supportive care may require surgical relief.