Following surgery for congenital heart disease, there is often an increased reactivity of the pulmonary vasculature to stimuli, resulting in rapid increases in pulmonary artery pressure and a clinical impression of stiff lungs. Lung mechanics were measured in 30 children, mean age 6.7 +/- 4.1 mo, who were ventilated and had pulmonary artery pressure monitoring following surgery for congenital heart disease. A group of 15 patients developed postoperative pulmonary hypertension. In these patients, respiratory system resistance was 43% higher (p = 0.001) and compliance 11% lower (p = 0.004) during acute pulmonary hypertension compared with baseline pulmonary artery pressure. No changes in resistance or compliance were seen in the 15 patients who did not develop pulmonary hypertension. The changes in lung mechanics interfered with mechanical ventilation, resulting in a 9.4% rise in PaCO2 during pulmonary hypertension. The bronchial smooth muscle was found to be increased by 68%, and the vascular smooth muscle was more than twice normal in lung biopsies from 9 pulmonary hypertension patients compared with 6 age-matched postmortem controls patients who had no cardiac or pulmonary disease. The bombesin-immunoreactive pulmonary neuroendocrine cells (PNEC) were also increased in the pulmonary hypertension patients. These findings suggest a coconstriction and cohypertrophy of bronchial and vascular smooth muscle during pulmonary hypertension. Mediators, such as bombesin, endothelin-1, and serotonin, are known to be produced by PNEC and may be involved in the observed vasoconstriction, increased respiratory system resistance, and smooth muscle hypertrophy.