The purpose of this study was to determine the degree of respiratory muscle impairment in patients with newly diagnosed amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and the subsequent rate of decline of respiratory function. Thirty-one of 36 patients had respiratory muscle weakness at presentation, although only 7 complained of any respiratory symptoms. Vital capacity (percent predicted) was significantly lower in the symptomatic group (55.9 +/- 20.3) compared with the asymptomatic group (76.4 +/- 21.0). Respiratory muscle impairment as measured by vital capacity (percent predicted) was related to stage of disease at presentation. Rate of decline of respiratory muscle strength as measured by VC (-3.5 percent/month), negative inspiratory pressure (NIF) (+2.9 cm H2O/month), and positive expiratory pressure (PEP) (-3.4 cm H2O/month) tended to be linear with a great deal of interpatient variability. It is concluded that early measurement of respiratory muscle strength in ALS with subsequent follow-up studies may be useful in determining overall prognosis and in decision making.