Intraluminal airway pressure and pharyngeal muscle activity are widely recognized as major determinants of the size and collapsibility of the upper airway. In addition, changes in the volume or pressure of tissue surrounding the pharyngeal airway may significantly influence its size. The present study used fast computed tomography (CT) to determine the effects of changes in central venous pressure (CVP) on upper airway size. Ten awake male patients with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) were studied. Scans were performed at functional residual capacity (FRC) and at the end of a tidal inspiration (VTei) under three conditions of CVP: (1) at baseline (CVP nl) with patients lying supine; (2) at decreased CVP (CVP-) by inflating blood pressure cuffs to 40 mm Hg on both legs; and (3) at increased CVP (CVP+) by elevating both legs to 33 degrees. At FRC, changes in CVP had no significant effect on either mean or minimum cross-sectional area (CSA) of the upper airway. In contrast, an analysis of variance (ANOVA) indicated that alterations in CVP were associated with changes in mean CSA (p = 0.03) and to a lesser extent in minimum CSA (p = 0.07) at VTei. With the legs elevated (CVP+), neither mean nor minimum CSA showed any significant change with tidal breathing. However, after leg-cuff inflation (CVP-), highly significant increases in both mean (163 +/- 22 to 218 +/- 19 mm2, p = 0.001) and minimum (48 +/- 8 to 85 +/- 12 mm2, p = 0.02) CSA were detected. Changes in mean and minimum CSA with tidal breathing at baseline (CVP nl) were intermediate. These results indicate that changes in CVP significantly alter the response of the upper airway to tidal breathing. They further suggest that increases in upper airway size with tidal breathing may be related to reduction in venous blood volume in pharyngeal and neck tissues as the generation of negative intrathoracic pressure during inspiration increases venous return to the chest.