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Chronic hypoxia occurs in a variety of circumstances, including respiratory disease and exposure to altitude, and is known to affect respiratory muscle structure. However, little is known about its effects on respiratory muscle contractile properties.Rats were exposed to normoxia (n = 16) or hypobaric hypoxia (n = 16; barometric pressure 450 mmHg) for 6 weeks. Contractile properties were measured in isolated sternohyoid and diaphragm muscles in warmed, oxygenated Krebs' solution. Isometric twitch and tetanic tension, contraction time, half-relaxation time and tension–frequency relationship were determined using field stimulation with platinum electrodes. Fatigue was induced by stimulation at 40 Hz with 300 msec trains of 0.5 Hz for 5 min.Chronic hypoxia had no effect on bodyweight, but did increase haematocrit. Chronic hypoxia increased specific force development in both muscles and increased sternohyoid fatigue. Chronic hypoxia had no effect on contractile kinetics in either muscle, but shifted the tension–frequency relationship to the left in the diaphragm.Therefore, chronic hypoxia alters rat respiratory muscle force and fatigue, either due to the direct effects of hypoxia or to increased muscle activation.