We used published data for the elastic properties of a 2-mm outer-diameter canine bronchus and assumed values for the thickness of the wall components and lung parenchymal shear modulus to estimate the load on airway smooth muscle and its effect on airway narrowing. The following relationships were calculated: (1) luminal and smooth muscle radii of curvature and transmural pressure; (2) the isovolume, transmural pressures developed by the smooth muscle to narrow the lumen at distending pressures of 20, 10, 5, and 2 cm H2O; (3) the equilibrium tension developed by, and thus the load on, the airway smooth muscle as a function of smooth muscle length during isovolume bronchoconstriction. From these calculations a smooth muscle length-tension diagram was drawn allowing the interactions between submucosal thickening, peribronchial thickening, load, and smooth muscle contractility to be analyzed. The analysis indicates that: (1) the load on smooth muscle decreases by more than an order of magnitude between a distending pressure of 20 and 2 cm H2O; (2) increasing smooth muscle contractility has more effect at large rather than at small distending pressures; (3) peribronchial inflammation decreases both load and the slope of the relationship between peribronchial and pleural pressures. Decreases in load may be an important mechanism producing excessive bronchoconstriction in asthma.