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.


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. Two main causes of decreased gas exchange are compliance (how elastic the lung is) and resistance(how much obstruction exists in the airways). A change in either can dramatically alter breathing and the ability to take in oxygen and release carbon dioxide.

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 20.18). 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 (Figure 20.18). 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.

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Figure 20.18.  The ratio of FEV1 (the amount of air that can be forcibly exhaled in one second after taking a deep breath) to FVC (the total amount of air that can be forcibly exhaled) can be used to diagnose whether a person has restrictive or obstructive lung disease. In restrictive lung disease, FVC is reduced but airways are not obstructed, so the person is able to expel air reasonably fast. In obstructive lung disease, airway obstruction results in slow exhalation as well as reduced FVC. Thus, the FEV1/FVC ratio is lower in persons with obstructive lung disease (less than 69 percent) than in persons with restrictive disease (88 to 90 percent).

Dead Space: V/Q Mismatch

Pulmonary circulation pressure is very low compared to that of the systemic circulation. It is also independent of cardiac output. This is because of a phenomenon called recruitment, which is the process of opening airways that normally remain closed when cardiac output increases. As cardiac output increases, the number of capillaries and arteries that are perfused (filled with blood) increases. These capillaries and arteries are not always in use but are ready if needed. At times, however, there is a mismatch between the amount of air (ventilation, V) and the amount of blood (perfusion, Q) in the lungs. This is referred to as ventilation/perfusion (V/Q) mismatch.

There are two types of V/Q mismatch. Both produce dead space, regions of broken down or blocked lung tissue. Dead spaces can severely impact breathing, because they reduce the surface area available for gas diffusion. As a result, the amount of oxygen in the blood decreases, whereas the carbon dioxide level increases. Dead space is created when no ventilation and/or perfusion takes place. Anatomical dead space or anatomical shunt, arises from an anatomical failure, while physiological dead spaceor physiological shunt, arises from a functional impairment of the lung or arteries.

An example of an anatomical shunt is the effect of gravity on the lungs. The lung is particularly susceptible to changes in the magnitude and direction of gravitational forces. When someone is standing or sitting upright, the pleural pressure gradient leads to increased ventilation further down in the lung. As a result, the intrapleural pressure is more negative at the base of the lung than at the top, and more air fills the bottom of the lung than the top. Likewise, it takes less energy to pump blood to the bottom of the lung than to the top when in a prone position. Perfusion of the lung is not uniform while standing or sitting. This is a result of hydrostatic forces combined with the effect of airway pressure. An anatomical shunt develops because the ventilation of the airways does not match the perfusion of the arteries surrounding those airways. As a result, the rate of gas exchange is reduced. Note that this does not occur when lying down, because in this position, gravity does not preferentially pull the bottom of the lung down.

A physiological shunt can develop if there is infection or edema in the lung that obstructs an area. This will decrease ventilation but not affect perfusion; therefore, the V/Q ratio changes and gas exchange is affected.

The lung can compensate for these mismatches in ventilation and perfusion. If ventilation is greater than perfusion, the arterioles dilate and the bronchioles constrict. This increases perfusion and reduces ventilation. Likewise, if ventilation is less than perfusion, the arterioles constrict and the bronchioles dilate to correct the imbalance.


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. Alterations in the ventilation of the airways or perfusion of the arteries can affect gas exchange. These changes in ventilation and perfusion, called V/Q mismatch, can arise from anatomical or physiological changes.

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