Prone positioning improves gas exchange in some patients with adult respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), but the effects of repeated, long-term prone positioning (20 h duration) have never been evaluated systemically. We therefore investigated 20 patients with ARDS after multiple trauma (Injury Severity Score [ISS] 27.3 +/- 10, ARDS score 2.84 +/- 0.42). Patients who fulfilled the entry criteria (bilateral diffuse infiltrates, severe hypoxemia, pulmonary artery occlusion pressure [PAOP] < 18 mm Hg, and PaO2/fraction of inspired oxygen [FIO2] < 200 mm Hg at inverse ratio ventilation with positive end-expiratory pressure [PEEP] > 8 mm Hg for more than 24 h) were turned to the prone position at noon and were turned back to the supine position at 8:00 AM on the next day. Thus only two turns per day were necessary, and the risk of disconnecting airways or medical lines was minimized. Prone positioning was repeated for another 20 h if the patients fulfilled the entry criteria. Except for FIO2, the ventilator settings remained unchanged during the study period. All patients were sedated and, if needed paralyzed to minimize patient discomfort. One hour before and after each position change, ventilator settings and pulmonary and systemic hemodynamics were recorded and blood was obtained for blood gas analysis. Derived cardiopulmonary and ventilatory variables were calculated using standard formulas. Overall mortality was 10%. Oxygenation variables improved significantly each time the patients were placed prone. Immediately after the first turn from the supine to the prone position the following changes were observed: PaO2 increased from 97 +/- 4 to 152 +/- 15 mm Hg, intrapulmonary shunt (Qva/Qt) decreased from 30.3 +/- 2.3 to 25.5 +/- 1.8, and the alveolar-arterial oxygen difference decreased from 424 +/- 24 to 339 +/- 25 mm Hg. All these changes were statistically significant. Most of these improvements were lost when the patients were turned supine, but could be reproduced when prone positioning was repeated after a short period (4 h) in the supine position. Short periods in the supine position were necessary to allow for nursing care, medical evaluation, and interventions such as placement of central lines. No position-dependent changes of systemic hemodynamic variables were observed. We conclude that, in trauma patients with ARDS undergoing long-term positioning treatment, lung function improves significantly during prone position compared to short phases of conventional supine position during which the beneficial effects are partly lost.