The diaphragm is normally the main inspiratory muscle and diaphragm strength in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is therefore of interest. We assessed diaphragm strength in 20 patients with severe stable COPD (mean FEV1 0.61, mean thoracic gas volume [Vtg] 5.31) and seven normal control subjects, measuring both maximal sniff transdiaphragmatic pressure (sniff Pdi(max)) and twitch transdiaphragmatic pressure (Tw Pdi) elicited by cervical magnetic stimulation (CMS) of the phrenic nerve roots at FRC. Acute-on-chronic hyperinflation was examined in four patients. Mean Tw Pdi in patients and control subjects was 18.5 cm H2O and 25.4 cm H2O, respectively (p < 0.01), and mean sniff Pdi was 81.9 cm H2O and 118 cm H2O, respectively (p < 0.001). Reduction in mean intrathoracic pressures was more marked; twitch esophageal pressure (Tw Pes) was -7.3 cm H2O and -16.3 cm H2O, respectively (p < 0.001) and sniff Pes was -67 cm H2O and -97.8 cm H2O (p < 0.001). During acute-on-chronic hyperinflation there was a linear negative correlation of Tw Pdi with increasing lung volume of 3.5 cm H2O/L. The ability of the diaphragm to generate transdiaphragmatic, and particularly a negative intrathoracic, pressure is reduced in COPD and these changes are exaggerated with acute-on-chronic hyperinflation.