Abstract A modified Reynolds equation is derived for thin film elastohydrodynamic lubrication (TFEHL) by means of the viscous adsorption theory. This TFEHL theory can be used to explain the deviation between the measured film thickness and that predicted from the convenient elastohydrodynamic lubrication (EHL) theory under very thin film conditions. Results show that the thinner the film, the greater the ratio of the adsorption layer to the total film thickness becomes, and the greater the value of the pressure–viscosity index ( z′). An inverse approach is proposed to estimate the pressure distribution based upon the film thickness measurement and to determine the pressure–viscosity index of oil film, and the thickness ( δ) and the viscosity ratio ( η *) of the adsorption layer in TFEHL circular contacts. Based on TFEHL theory, the inverse approach can reduce z′ error, and provides a reasonably smooth curve of pressure profile by implementing the measurement error in the film thickness. This algorithm not only estimates the pressure, but also calibrates the film shape. Consequently, it predicts z′, η *, and δ with very good accuracy. It can also be used to evaluate the lubrication performance from a film thickness map obtained from an optical EHL tester. Results show that the estimated value of z′ is in very good agreement with the experimental data.