Twelve patients exhibiting difficulties during discontinuation of artificial ventilation permitted us to investigate physical examination techniques used in diagnosing inspiratory muscle fatigue. Diaphragmatic and intercostal electromyographic tracings, arterial blood gases, rate and depth of ventilation, and thoracoabdominal motion were monitored during spontaneous breathing. Six patients showed electromyographic evidence of inspiratory muscle fatigue. A sequence of events leading to respiratory acidemia emerged--namely electromyographic evidence of fatigue, accompanied or followed by an increased respiratory rate, in turn followed by alternation between abdominal and rib cage breathing (respiratory alternans), paradoxical inward abdominal motion during inspiration (abdominal paradox), and finally an increase in PaCO2 associated with a fall in minute ventilation and respiratory rate, and worsening of respiratory acidemia. The abnormalities of respiratory movements may be reliable clinical signs of inspiratory muscle fatigue, particularly when accompanied by tachypnea and hypercapnia.