The Mechanics of Breathing

Section Summary

The structure of the lungs and thoracic cavity control the mechanics of breathing. Upon inspiration, the diaphragm contracts and lowers. The intercostal muscles contract and expand the chest wall outward. The intrapleural pressure drops, the lungs expand, and air is drawn into the airways. When exhaling, the intercostal muscles and diaphragm relax, returning the intrapleural pressure back to the resting state. The lungs recoil and airways close. The air passively exits the lung. There is high surface tension at the air-airway interface in the lung. Surfactant, a mixture of phospholipids and lipoproteins, acts like a detergent in the airways to reduce surface tension and allow for opening of the alveoli.

Breathing and gas exchange are both altered by changes in the compliance and resistance of the lung. If the compliance of the lung decreases, as occurs in restrictive diseases like fibrosis, the airways stiffen and collapse upon exhalation. Air becomes trapped in the lungs, making breathing more difficult. If resistance increases, as happens with asthma or emphysema, the airways become obstructed, trapping air in the lungs and causing breathing to become difficult.