The fatigue threshold of the human diaphragm in normal subjects corresponds to a transdiaphragmatic pressure (Pdi)-inspiratory time integral (TTdi) of about 15% of Pdimax. The TTdi of resting ventilation was measured in 20 patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and ranged between 1 and 12% of Pdimax (mean 5%). TTdi was significantly related to total airway resistance (Raw) (r = 0.57; P less than 0.05). Five of these patients were asked to voluntarily modify their TI/TT (ratio of inspiratory time to total cycle duration; from 0.33 to 0.49) so as to increase their TTdi from a control value of 8% to an imposed value of 17% of Pdimax. The imposed pattern induced a progressive decline in the high-frequency (150-350 Hz)/low-frequency (20-40 Hz) power ratio (H/L) of the diaphragm electromyogram (fatigue pattern), quantitatively similar to that seen in normal subjects breathing with similar TTdi levels. The decay in H/L was followed by a progressive fall in mean Pdi meanly due to decrease in gastric pressure swings. It is concluded that 1) the force reserve of the diaphragm in COPD patients is decreased because of a decrease in Pdimax; 2) the remaining force reserve of the diaphragm can be exhausted by even minor modifications in the breathing pattern; and 3) at a TI/TT of 0.40 our COPD patients can increase their mean Pdi 3-fold before reaching a fatiguing pattern of breathing compared with 8-fold in normal subjects.