Although obesity predisposes to postoperative pulmonary complications, data on the relationship between body mass index (BMI) and peri-operative respiratory performance are limited. We prospectively studied the impact of spinal anaesthesia, obesity and vaginal surgery on lung volumes measured by spirometry in 28 patients with BMI 30-40 kg.m(-2) and in 13 patients with BMI >= 40 kg.m(-2). Vital capacity, forced vital capacity, forced expiratory volume in 1 s, mid-expiratory and peak expiratory flows were measured during the pre-operative visit (baseline), after effective spinal anaesthesia with preinedication, and after the operation at 20 min, 1 h, 2 h, and 3 h (after mobilisation). Spinal anaesthesia and premedication were associated with a significant decrease in spirometric parameters. Spinal anaesthesia and premedication were associated with a significant decrease in spirometric parameters; mean (SD) vital capacities were -19% (6.4) in patients with BMI 30-40 kg.m(-2) and -33% (9.0) in patients with BMI>40 kg.m(-2). The decrease of lung volumes remained constant for 2 h, whereas 3 h after the operation and after mobilisation, spirometric parameters significantly improved in all patients. This study showed that both spinal anaesthesia and obesity significantly impaired peri-operative respiratory function.