Muscle specimens by means of quadriceps femoris needle biopsy and blood samples were obtained in 32 patients consecutively admitted to a pulmonary ICU for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and acute respiratory failure, and in 30 age and sex-matched healthy control subjects. Muscle magnesium (Mg) and potassium (K) content was assessed by atomic absorption spectrophotometry; serum electrolytes were also measured. The presence of clinical and biochemical correlates of low serum and muscle Mg was investigated. Three (9.4%) out of 32 patients had hypomagnesemia (Mgs less than or equal to 0.7 mmol/L) with normal muscle Mg values, whereas low muscle Mg values were found in 15 (47%) of 32 patients, with no alterations of serum Mg levels. Muscle Mg was decreased significantly in pulmonary ICU patients as compared to control subjects. No significant correlation was present between serum and muscle Mg, or between serum and muscle K. Significant relationships between muscle Mg and both muscle and intracellular K concentrations were also found. Lower values for muscle and intracellular K and a higher incidence of both more prolonged ICU stays and ventricular extrasystolic beats characterized the ICU patients with altered muscle Mg levels. We conclude that, given the serious complications of Mg metabolism derangements, the presence of altered cell Mg content should be taken into account in pulmonary ICU patients. Moreover, in these patients, serum Mg levels are of little value in the diagnosis of intracellular Mg deficits.