AIMS/BACKGROUND: In Graves' ophthalmopathy the increase in volume of intraocular muscles and fat will cause elevated intraorbital pressure. In order to investigate the pressure levels involved, intraorbital pressure, or retrobulbar pressure (RBP) was measured continuously in orbits of patients with Graves' ophthalmopathy during surgical decompression. METHODS: Retrobulbar pressure was measured before and during surgical decompression using an intraorbitally applied pressure transducer. RESULTS: In eight patients with dysthyroid optic neuropathy (DON) RBPs between 17 and 40 mm Hg were recorded. At the end of the surgical procedure the mean RBP was reduced from 28.7 mm Hg to 18.7 mm Hg, the decrease ranging from 8 to 12 mm Hg, which showed a high correlation with the starting pressures (p < 0.001). In two cases without DON, pressures were 11 and 9 mm Hg. Forces exerted by spatula manipulation usually resulted in a RBP level of more than 70 mm Hg. CONCLUSIONS: This study shows that RBPs are markedly elevated in Graves' ophthalmopathy and that surgical decompression can result in a significant reduction in the intraorbital pressure. Optic nerve dysfunction in Graves' ophthalmopathy may not be caused exclusively by the direct pressure of swollen extraocular muscles upon the optic nerve, but also by a raised RBP. It is hypothesised that the damage inflicted upon the optic nerve can be caused in consequence by RBP induced incarceration of the nerve, compressed by surrounding periosteal lined orbital fat bulging posteriorly into the entrance of the optic canal.