Continuous positive-pressure ventilation and PSV were compared prospectively in patients at a surgical intensive care unit. All patients suffered from mild to moderate ARI (PaO2/FIO2 of 125 to 350 mm Hg). The patients were randomly assigned to a PSV group (n = 28) or a control group with continued CPPV (n = 27). The usual hemodynamic and oxygenation variables, ITBV, and extravascular lung water (ETV) were assessed before and six hours after switching to PSV. The changes (d) of PaO2/FIO2, RI, and P(A-a)O2 were used for evaluation of the effect of PSV. Significant correlations were found between the ETV(CPPV) and dPaO2/FIO2 (r = -0.672), ETV(CPPV) and dRI (r = 0.722), and ETV(CPPV) and dP(A-a)O2 (r = 0.601), which led to the conclusion that the level of ETV determined the efficacy of PSV. In the subgroup with ETV less than 11 ml/kg (n = 15), PSV significantly improved PaO2/FIO2 (248 to 286 mm Hg), RI (1.55 to 1.22), ITBV (801 to 888 ml/m2), cardiac index (4.21 to 4.76 L/min.m2), stroke index (42.2 to 48.1 ml/m2), and oxygen delivery (735 to 833 ml/min.m2). In the subgroup with ETV greater than 11 ml/kg (n = 13), PSV caused a significant deterioration of PaO2/FIO2, RI, and intrapulmonary shunt. It is concluded that in patients with moderate ARI in whom ETV is almost normal, PSV is superior to CPPV, and the efficacy of PSV is independent of the level of oxygenation during CPPV.