We examined the relationship between lung volume and pharyngeal cross-sectional area in 9 obese patients with obstructive sleep apnea and 10 age-matched, obese subjects without sleep apnea. Pharyngeal area was measured in the upright, seated posture using an acoustic reflection technique. Measurements were made at a rate of 5 per second during a slow exhalation from total lung capacity (TLC) to residual volume (RV). In the control subjects, the mean +/- SE pharyngeal area was 5.6 +/- 0.2 cm2 at TLC, and decreased by 30 +/- 5% over the vital capacity range to 3.9 +/- 0.3 cm2 at RV. In contrast to the control subjects, in patients with obstructive sleep apnea, pharyngeal area was 5.0 +/- 0.2 cm2 at TLC, and decreased by 54 +/- 6% over the vital capacity range to 2.3 +/- 0.3 cm2 at RV. The difference in pharyngeal area between the patients and control subjects was significant at all lung volumes below TLC, as was the difference in the magnitude of change in pharyngeal area with change in lung volume. The results indicate that in obese patients with obstructive sleep apnea, pharyngeal cross-sectional area is abnormally small, and varies considerably with changes in lung volume. The beneficial effects of weight reduction in such patients may relate to the coincident increase in functional residual capacity, causing an increase in upper airway size.