A retrospective review was made of 49 survivors who were mechanically ventilated for more than 48 hours in the neurosurgical ICU. Thirty-two patients (Gp I) were successfully extubated, 9 patients (Gp II) underwent tracheostomy after one or more failed extubations, and 8 patients (Gp III) underwent elective tracheostomy. Glasgow Coma Scale (GCS) scores at extubation were 11.3 +/- 2.8 (mean (SD) for Gp I vs 7.8 +/- 2.7 for Gp II (P = n.s.) and at elective tracheostomy (Gp III) was 5.4 +/- 2.3. Incidence of ventilator-associated pneumonia were 35% in Gp I vs 100% of patients in Gp II and III (P < 0.05). Reasons for reintubation in 7 of 9 patients (Gp II) were upper airway obstruction and tenacious tracheal secretions while 14 of 17 patients were weaned off the ventilator within 48 hours of tracheostomy. The length of stay in ICU was 16.8 +/- 7.1 days in Gp II vs 11.7 +/- 2.9 days in Gp III (P < 0.05). In our study, elective tracheostomy for selected patients with poor GCS scores and nosocomial pneumonia has resulted in shortened ICU length of stay and rapid weaning from ventilatory support.