Patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) often develop weight loss, which is associated with increased mortality. Recombinant human growth hormone (rhGH) treatment has been proposed to improve nitrogen balance and to increase muscle strength in these patients. The aim of this study was to assess the effects of rhGH administration on the nutritional status, resting metabolism, muscle strength, exercise tolerance, dyspnea, and subjective well-being of underweight patients with stable COPD. Sixteen patients attending a pulmonary rehabilitation program (age: 66 +/- 9 yr; weight: 77 +/- 7% of ideal body weight; FEV1: 39 +/- 13% of predicted) were randomly treated daily with either 0.15 IU/kg rhGH or placebo during 3 wk in a double-blind fashion. Measurements were made at the beginning (DO) and at the end (D21) of treatment and 2 mo later (D81). Body weight was similar in the two groups during the study, but lean body mass was significantly higher in the rhGH group at D21 (p < 0.01) and D81 (p < 0.05). The increase in lean body mass was 2.3 +/- 1.6 kg in the rhGH group and 1.1 +/- 0.9 kg in the control group at D21 and 1.9 +/- 1.6 kg in the rhGH group and 0.7 +/- 2.1 kg in the control group at D81. At D21, the resting energy expenditure was increased in the rhGH group (107.8% of DO, p < 0.001 compared with the control group). At D21 and D81, the changes in maximal respiratory pressures, handgrip strength, maximal exercise capacity, and subjective well-being were similar in the two groups. At D21, the 6-min walking distance decreased in the rhGH group (-13 +/- 31%) and increased in the control group (+10 +/- 14%; p < 0.01). We conclude that the daily administration of 0.15 IU/kg rhGH during 3 wk increases lean body mass but does not improve muscle strength or exercise tolerance in underweight patients with COPD.