It is now widely accepted that mechanical ventilation may damage the lung, but the mechanism of lung damage is not clear. Possible causes include overdistension of aerated alveoli by inappropriately large tidal volumes (volutrauma), shear stresses generated during the recruitment and de-recruitment of lung units at the junction of aerated and collapsed lung, and infective or ischaemic necrosis of persistently collapsed lung. Computerized tomography allows noninvasive assessment of lung structure during and after acute lung injury, and may provide insight into the mechanism of lung damage. Using serial high resolution computed tomography we documented lung structure one month after recovery from severe protracted adult respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) in three patients who required mechanical ventilation for between 86 and 97 days; the computed tomograms were repeated at between 5 and 14 months. All three patients had persistent abnormalities of lung structure which were most marked in the anterior regions of the lung. These findings suggest that overdistension of non-dependent lung regions in the main mechanism of lung damage persisting after recovery from severe protracted ARDS.