Positive end-expiratory pressure (PEEP) has generally been withheld from the treatment of patients with chronic airflow obstruction (CAO), in view of the risk of hyperinflation and lack of documented benefit. We studied 10 mechanically ventilated patients with exacerbated CAO and air trapping to determine the impact of PEEP on lung mechanics, alveolar pressure, and the work of breathing. PEEP levels of 5 and 10 cmH2O were applied to patients whose end-expiratory alveolar pressures were documented to be positive when breathing against ambient pressure (the auto-PEEP effect). All patients were studied under two conditions: every breath machine assisted (AMV) and every breath machine controlled (paralyzed, CMV). PEEP improved expiratory resistance without substantially increasing peak static pressure. Inspiratory resistance remained unchanged. The difference between the end-expiratory values of alveolar and central airway pressure narrowed as PEEP increased. Adding PEEP improved the effective triggering sensitivity of the ventilator, diminished ventilatory drive, and reduced the mechanical work of breathing during the machine-assisted ventilatory cycle. Our results indicate that low levels of PEEP may improve lung mechanics and reduce the effort required of mechanically ventilated patients with severe airflow obstruction, without substantially increasing the hazards of hyperinflation.