The Mechanics of Breathing

The Mechanics of Breathing

Mammalian lungs are located in the thoracic cavity where they are surrounded and protected by the rib cage, intercostal muscles, and bound by the chest wall. The bottom of the lungs is contained by the diaphragm, a dome-shaped sheet of skeletal muscle that facilitates breathing. Breathing requires the coordination of the lungs, the chest wall, and most importantly, the diaphragm.

The Mechanics of Human Breathing

Boyle’s Law is the gas law that states that in a closed space, pressure and volume are inversely related. As volume decreases, pressure increases and vice versa (Figure). The relationship between gas pressure and volume helps to explain the mechanics of breathing.

In this graph, pressure is plotted against volume. The line curves downward steeply at first, then more gradually.

This graph shows data from Boyle’s original 1662 experiment, which shows that pressure and volume are inversely related. No units are given as Boyle used arbitrary units in his experiments.

There is always a slightly negative pressure within the thoracic cavity, which aids in keeping the airways of the lungs open. During inhalation, volume increases as a result of contraction of the diaphragm, and pressure decreases (according to Boyle’s Law). This decrease of pressure in the thoracic cavity relative to the environment makes the cavity less than the atmosphere (Figurea). Because of this drop in pressure, air rushes into the respiratory passages. To increase the volume of the lungs, the chest wall expands. This results from the contraction of the intercostal muscles, the muscles that are connected to the rib cage. Lung volume expands because the diaphragm contracts and the intercostals muscles contract, thus expanding the thoracic cavity. This increase in the volume of the thoracic cavity lowers pressure compared to the atmosphere, so air rushes into the lungs, thus increasing its volume. The resulting increase in volume is largely attributed to an increase in alveolar space, because the bronchioles and bronchi are stiff structures that do not change in size.

Part a shows expanded lungs with alveoli filled with air during inhalation. The diaphragm is pulled downward, and the muscles of the chest wall are bulled outward. Part b shows collapsed lungs during expiration. The diaphragm is pushed upward, and the chest cavity muscles are pushed inward.

The lungs, chest wall, and diaphragm are all involved in respiration, both (a) inhalation and (b) expiration. (credit: modification of work by Mariana Ruiz Villareal)

The chest wall expands out and away from the lungs. The lungs are elastic; therefore, when air fills the lungs, the elastic recoil within the tissues of the lung exerts pressure back toward the interior of the lungs. These outward and inward forces compete to inflate and deflate the lung with every breath. Upon exhalation, the lungs recoil to force the air out of the lungs, and the intercostal muscles relax, returning the chest wall back to its original position (Figureb). The diaphragm also relaxes and moves higher into the thoracic cavity. This increases the pressure within the thoracic cavity relative to the environment, and air rushes out of the lungs. The movement of air out of the lungs is a passive event. No muscles are contracting to expel the air.

Each lung is surrounded by an invaginated sac. The layer of tissue that covers the lung and dips into spaces is called the visceral pleura. A second layer of parietal pleura lines the interior of the thorax (Figure). The space between these layers, the intrapleural space, contains a small amount of fluid that protects the tissue and reduces the friction generated from rubbing the tissue layers together as the lungs contract and relax. Pleurisy results when these layers of tissue become inflamed; it is painful because the inflammation increases the pressure within the thoracic cavity and reduces the volume of the lung.

The illustration shows human lungs. Each lung is covered by an inner visceral pleura and an outer parietal pleura. The intrapleural space is the space between the two membranes.

A tissue layer called pleura surrounds the lung and interior of the thoracic cavity. (credit: modification of work by NCI)

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View how Boyle’s Law is related to breathing and watch a video on Boyle’s Law.

 

The Work of Breathing

The number of breaths per minute is the respiratory rate. On average, under non-exertion conditions, the human respiratory rate is 12–15 breaths/minute. The respiratory rate contributes to the alveolar ventilation, or how much air moves into and out of the alveoli. Alveolar ventilation prevents carbon dioxide buildup in the alveoli. There are two ways to keep the alveolar ventilation constant: increase the respiratory rate while decreasing the tidal volume of air per breath (shallow breathing), or decrease the respiratory rate while increasing the tidal volume per breath. In either case, the ventilation remains the same, but the work done and type of work needed are quite different. Both tidal volume and respiratory rate are closely regulated when oxygen demand increases.

There are two types of work conducted during respiration, flow-resistive and elastic work. Flow-resistive refers to the work of the alveoli and tissues in the lung, whereas elastic work refers to the work of the intercostal muscles, chest wall, and diaphragm. Increasing the respiration rate increases the flow-resistive work of the airways and decreases the elastic work of the muscles. Decreasing the respiratory rate reverses the type of work required.

Surfactant

The air-tissue/water interface of the alveoli has a high surface tension. This surface tension is similar to the surface tension of water at the liquid-air interface of a water droplet that results in the bonding of the water molecules together. Surfactant is a complex mixture of phospholipids and lipoproteins that works to reduce the surface tension that exists between the alveoli tissue and the air found within the alveoli. By lowering the surface tension of the alveolar fluid, it reduces the tendency of alveoli to collapse.

Surfactant works like a detergent to reduce the surface tension and allows for easier inflation of the airways. When a balloon is first inflated, it takes a large amount of effort to stretch the plastic and start to inflate the balloon. If a little bit of detergent was applied to the interior of the balloon, then the amount of effort or work needed to begin to inflate the balloon would decrease, and it would become much easier to start blowing up the balloon. This same principle applies to the airways. A small amount of surfactant to the airway tissues reduces the effort or work needed to inflate those airways. Babies born prematurely sometimes do not produce enough surfactant. As a result, they suffer from respiratory distress syndrome, because it requires more effort to inflate their lungs. Surfactant is also important for preventing collapse of small alveoli relative to large alveoli.

Lung Resistance and Compliance

Pulmonary diseases reduce the rate of gas exchange into and out of the lungs. Examples of restrictive diseases are respiratory distress syndrome and pulmonary fibrosis. In both diseases, the airways are less compliant and they are stiff or fibrotic. There is a decrease in compliance because the lung tissue cannot bend and move. In these types of restrictive diseases, the intrapleural pressure is more positive and the airways collapse upon exhalation, which traps air in the lungs. Forced or functional vital capacity (FVC), which is the amount of air that can be forcibly exhaled after taking the deepest breath possible, is much lower than in normal patients, and the time it takes to exhale most of the air is greatly prolonged (Figure). A patient suffering from these diseases cannot exhale the normal amount of air.

Obstructive diseases and conditions include emphysema, asthma, and pulmonary edema. In emphysema, which mostly arises from smoking tobacco, the walls of the alveoli are destroyed, decreasing the surface area for gas exchange. The overall compliance of the lungs is increased, because as the alveolar walls are damaged, lung elastic recoil decreases due to a loss of elastic fibers, and more air is trapped in the lungs at the end of exhalation. Asthma is a disease in which inflammation is triggered by environmental factors. Inflammation obstructs the airways. The obstruction may be due to edema (fluid accumulation), smooth muscle spasms in the walls of the bronchioles, increased mucus secretion, damage to the epithelia of the airways, or a combination of these events. Those with asthma or edema experience increased occlusion from increased inflammation of the airways. This tends to block the airways, preventing the proper movement of gases. Those with obstructive diseases have large volumes of air trapped after exhalation and breathe at a very high lung volume to compensate for the lack of airway recruitment.

Asthma attack bronchiole constriction.  (Credit:  7mike5000 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

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. 

Review Questions

Which of the following is NOT a muscle involved in breathing?

A. diaphragm

B. duodenum

C. intercostals

Hint:

B

Restrictive airway diseases ________.

A.  obstruct a passage in the lung with a foreign object

B.  decrease the compliance of the lung

C.  increase the volume of air in the alveoli

D.  make breathing more easier

Hint:

B

________ reduces the surface tension that exists between the alveoli tissue and the air found within the alveoli.

A.  Asthma

B.  Pleurisy

C.  Boyle's Law

D.  Surfactant

 

Hint:

D

Free Response

How would increased airway resistance affect intrapleural pressure during inhalation?

Hint:

Increased airway resistance increases the volume and pressure in the lung; therefore, the intrapleural pressure would be less negative and breathing would be more difficult.

Explain how a puncture to the thoracic cavity (from a knife wound, for instance) could alter the ability to inhale.

Hint:

A puncture to the thoracic cavity would equalize the pressure inside the thoracic cavity to the outside environment. For the lung to function properly, the intrapleural pressure must be negative. This is caused by the contraction of the diaphragm pulling the lungs down and drawing air into the lungs.

Additional Credits

Opening Image:  Engin Asil via Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 3.0]