We have investigated pulmonary hemodynamics in 16 patients with COPD with respiratory insufficiency, exhibiting marked peripheral edema. All the patients had previously undergone, within the last 6 months (T1), a right heart catheterization, in a stable state of their disease, when they were free of edema. Patients were subdivided into two groups according to the level of right ventricular end-diastolic pressure (RVEDP) during the episode of edema (T2): patients with a markedly elevated RVEDP (> 12 mm Hg) indicating the presence of right ventricular failure (RVF) = group 1, n = 9; patients with a normal or slightly elevated RVEDP (< 12 mm Hg) = group 2 (no RVF), n = 7. In group 1 pulmonary artery mean pressure (PAP) increased very significantly from T1 (27 +/- 5) to T2 (40 +/- 6 mm Hg, p < 0.001) as did RVEDP, from 7.5 +/- 3.9 to 13.4 +/- 1.2 mm Hg (p < 0.001). These hemodynamic changes paralleled a marked worsening of arterial blood gases, PaO2 falling from 63 +/- 4 to 49 +/- 7 mm Hg (p < 0.01) and PaCO2 increasing from 46 +/- 7 to 59 +/- 14 mm Hg (p < 0.01). On the other hand, in group 2, PAP was stable during the episode of edema (from 20 +/- 6 to 21 +/- 5 mm Hg), as was RVEDP (from 5.5 +/- 2.4 to 5.1 +/- 1.5 mm Hg), and changes in arterial blood gases from T1 to T2 were small and nonsignificant. It is concluded that RVF is effectively present in at least some patients with COPD with peripheral edema and is associated with a significant increase of PAP from baseline, probably accounted for by hypoxic vasoconstriction. Thus, pressure overload may contribute to the development of RVF. In other patients there are no hemodynamic signs of RVF, PAP is stable, and the origin of edema is not well understood.