Postoperative dysfunction of the diaphragm has been reported after upper abdominal surgery. This study was designed to determine whether an impairment in diaphragmatic contractility was involved in the genesis of the diaphragmatic dysfunction observed after upper abdominal surgery. Five patients undergoing upper abdominal surgery were studied. The following measurements were performed before and 4 h after surgery: vital capacity (VC), functional residual capacity (FRC), and forced expiratory volume in 1 s. Diaphragmatic function was also assessed using the ratio of changes in gastric pressure (delta Pga) over changes in transdiaphragmatic pressure (delta Pdi). Finally contractility of the diaphragm was determined by measuring the change in delta Pdi generated during bilateral electrical stimulation of the phrenic nerves (Pdi stim). Diaphragmatic dysfunction occurred in all the patients after upper abdominal surgery as assessed by a marked decrease in delta Pga/delta Pdi from 0.480 +/- 0.040 to -0.097 +/- 0.152 (P less than 0.01) 4 h after surgery compared with preoperative values. VC also markedly decreased after upper abdominal surgery from 3,900 +/- 630 to 2,060 +/- 520 ml (P less than 0.01) 4 h after surgery. In contrast, no change in FRC and Pdi stim was observed 4 h after surgery. In contrast, no change in FRC and Pdi stim was observed 4 h after upper abdominal surgery compared with the preoperative values. We conclude that contractility of the diaphragm is not altered after upper abdominal surgery, and diaphragmatic dysfunction is secondary to other mechanisms such as possible reflexes arising from the periphery (chest wall and/or peritoneum), which could inhibit the phrenic nerve output.