We studied the effects of theophylline on diaphragmatic strength and fatigue in 15 patients with severe chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Diaphragmatic strength was assessed by measurement of the transdiaphragmatic pressure generated at functional residual capacity during a maximal inspiratory effort against closed airways. Diaphragmatic fatigue was induced by resistive loaded breathing. The electrical activity of the diaphragm was recorded with an esophageal electrode during the fatigue runs, and the high-low ratio of the electrical signal was analyzed to assess diaphragmatic fatigue. Studies were performed before and after 7 and 30 days of theophylline administration (mean plasma level, 13 +/- 2 mg per liter). A control group received a placebo instead of theophylline. Theophylline increased maximal transdiaphragmatic pressure by 16 per cent after 7 days of administration (P less than 0.01), and this increase persisted after 30 days. No significant change in maximal transdiaphragmatic pressure was observed in the group given the placebo. Theophylline also suppressed diaphragmatic fatigue in all patients who received it. We conclude that theophylline has a potent and long-lasting effect on diaphragmatic strength and fatigue in patients with fixed airway obstruction.