How Does the Body Inhale and Exhale?

Pulmonary ventilation is the act of breathing, which can be described as the movement of air into and out of the lungs. The major mechanisms that drive pulmonary ventilation are atmospheric pressure (Patm); the air pressure within the alveoli, called alveolar pressure (Palv); and the pressure within the pleural cavity, called intrapleural pressure (Pip).

Mechanisms of Breathing

The alveolar and intrapleural pressures are dependent on certain physical features of the lung. However, the ability to breathe—to have air enter the lungs during inspiration and air leave the lungs during expiration—is dependent on the air pressure of the atmosphere and the air pressure within the lungs.

Pressure Relationships

Inspiration (or inhalation) and expiration (or exhalation) are dependent on the differences in pressure between the atmosphere and the lungs. In a gas, pressure is a force created by the movement of gas molecules that are confined. For example, a certain number of gas molecules in a two-liter container has more room than the same number of gas molecules in a one-liter containter. In this case, the force exerted by the movement of the gas molecules against the walls of the two-liter container is lower than the force exerted by the gas molecules in the one-liter container. Therefore, the pressure is lower in the two-liter container and higher in the one-liter container. At a constant temperature, changing the volume occupied by the gas changes the pressure, as does changing the number of gas molecules. Boyle’s law describes the relationship between volume and pressure in a gas at a constant temperature. Boyle discovered that the pressure of a gas is inversely proportional to its volume: If volume increases, pressure decreases. Likewise, if volume decreases, pressure increases. Pressure and volume are inversely related (P = k/V). Therefore, the pressure in the one-liter container (one-half the volume of the two-liter container) would be twice the pressure in the two-liter container. Boyle’s law is expressed by the following formula:



In this formula, P1 represents the initial pressure and V1 represents the initial volume, whereas the final pressure and volume are represented by P2 and V2, respectively. If the two- and one-liter containers were connected by a tube and the volume of one of the containers were changed, then the gases would move from higher pressure (lower volume) to lower pressure (higher volume).

Boyle's Law

This diagram shows two canisters containing a gas. The two canisters show how volume and pressure are inversely proportional, which illustrates Boyle’s law.


Pulmonary ventilation is dependent on three types of pressure: atmospheric, intra-alveolar, and interpleural. Atmospheric pressure is the amount of force that is exerted by gases in the air surrounding any given surface, such as the body. Atmospheric pressure can be expressed in terms of the unit atmosphere, abbreviated atm, or in millimeters of mercury (mm Hg). One atm is equal to 760 mm Hg, which is the atmospheric pressure at sea level. Typically, for respiration, other pressure values are discussed in relation to atmospheric pressure. Therefore, negative pressure is pressure lower than the atmospheric pressure, whereas positive pressure is pressure that it is greater than the atmospheric pressure. A pressure that is equal to the atmospheric pressure is expressed as zero.

Intra-alveolar pressure is the pressure of the air within the alveoli, which changes during the different phases of breathing (Figure). Because the alveoli are connected to the atmosphere via the tubing of the airways (similar to the two- and one-liter containers in the example above), the interpulmonary pressure of the alveoli always equalizes with the atmospheric pressure.


Intrapleural pressure is the pressure of the air within the pleural cavity, between the visceral and parietal pleurae. Similar to intra-alveolar pressure, intrapleural pressure also changes during the different phases of breathing. However, due to certain characteristics of the lungs, the intrapleural pressure is always lower than, or negative to, the intra-alveolar pressure (and therefore also to atmospheric pressure). Although it fluctuates during inspiration and expiration, intrapleural pressure remains approximately –4 mm Hg throughout the breathing cycle.

Competing forces within the thorax cause the formation of the negative intrapleural pressure. One of these forces relates to the elasticity of the lungs themselves—elastic tissue pulls the lungs inward, away from the thoracic wall. Surface tension of alveolar fluid, which is mostly water, also creates an inward pull of the lung tissue. This inward tension from the lungs is countered by opposing forces from the pleural fluid and thoracic wall. Surface tension within the pleural cavity pulls the lungs outward. Too much or too little pleural fluid would hinder the creation of the negative intrapleural pressure; therefore, the level must be closely monitored by the mesothelial cells and drained by the lymphatic system. Since the parietal pleura is attached to the thoracic wall, the natural elasticity of the chest wall opposes the inward pull of the lungs. Ultimately, the outward pull is slightly greater than the inward pull, creating the –4 mm Hg intrapleural pressure relative to the intra-alveolar pressure. Transpulmonary pressure is the difference between the intrapleural and intra-alveolar pressures, and it determines the size of the lungs. A higher transpulmonary pressure corresponds to a larger lung.

Physical Factors Affecting Ventilation

In addition to the differences in pressures, breathing is also dependent upon the contraction and relaxation of muscle fibers of both the diaphragm and thorax. The lungs themselves are passive during breathing, meaning they are not involved in creating the movement that helps inspiration and expiration. This is because of the adhesive nature of the pleural fluid, which allows the lungs to be pulled outward when the thoracic wall moves during inspiration. The recoil of the thoracic wall during expiration causes compression of the lungs. Contraction and relaxation of the diaphragm and intercostals muscles (found between the ribs) cause most of the pressure changes that result in inspiration and expiration. These muscle movements and subsequent pressure changes cause air to either rush in or be forced out of the lungs.

Other characteristics of the lungs influence the effort that must be expended to ventilate. Resistance is a force that slows motion, in this case, the flow of gases. The size of the airway is the primary factor affecting resistance. A small tubular diameter forces air through a smaller space, causing more collisions of air molecules with the walls of the airways. The following formula helps to describe the relationship between airway resistance and pressure changes:


As noted earlier, there is surface tension within the alveoli caused by water present in the lining of the alveoli. This surface tension tends to inhibit expansion of the alveoli. However, pulmonary surfactant secreted by type II alveolar cells mixes with that water and helps reduce this surface tension. Without pulmonary surfactant, the alveoli would collapse during expiration.

Thoracic wall compliance is the ability of the thoracic wall to stretch while under pressure. This can also affect the effort expended in the process of breathing. In order for inspiration to occur, the thoracic cavity must expand. The expansion of the thoracic cavity directly influences the capacity of the lungs to expand. If the tissues of the thoracic wall are not very compliant, it will be difficult to expand the thorax to increase the size of the lungs.

Pulmonary Ventilation

The difference in pressures drives pulmonary ventilation because air flows down a pressure gradient, that is, air flows from an area of higher pressure to an area of lower pressure. Air flows into the lungs largely due to a difference in pressure; atmospheric pressure is greater than intra-alveolar pressure, and intra-alveolar pressure is greater than intrapleural pressure. Air flows out of the lungs during expiration based on the same principle; pressure within the lungs becomes greater than the atmospheric pressure.

Pulmonary ventilation comprises two major steps: inspiration and expiration. Inspiration is the process that causes air to enter the lungs, and expiration is the process that causes air to leave the lungs. A respiratory cycle is one sequence of inspiration and expiration. In general, two muscle groups are used during normal inspiration: the diaphragm and the external intercostal muscles. Additional muscles can be used if a bigger breath is required. When the diaphragm contracts, it moves inferiorly toward the abdominal cavity, creating a larger thoracic cavity and more space for the lungs. Contraction of the external intercostal muscles moves the ribs upward and outward, causing the rib cage to expand, which increases the volume of the thoracic cavity. Due to the adhesive force of the pleural fluid, the expansion of the thoracic cavity forces the lungs to stretch and expand as well. This increase in volume leads to a decrease in intra-alveolar pressure, creating a pressure lower than atmospheric pressure. As a result, a pressure gradient is created that drives air into the lungs.


The process of normal expiration is passive, meaning that energy is not required to push air out of the lungs. Instead, the elasticity of the lung tissue causes the lung to recoil, as the diaphragm and intercostal muscles relax following inspiration. In turn, the thoracic cavity and lungs decrease in volume, causing an increase in interpulmonary pressure. The interpulmonary pressure rises above atmospheric pressure, creating a pressure gradient that causes air to leave the lungs.

Respiratory Volumes and Capacities

Respiratory volume describes the amount of air in a given space within the lungs, or which can be moved by the lung, and is dependent on a variety of factors. Tidal volume refers to the amount of air that enters the lungs during quiet breathing, which is about 500 mL, whereas inspiratory reserve volume is the amount of air that enters the lungs when a person inhales past the tidal volume. Expiratory reserve volume is the extra amount of air that can leave with forceful expiration, following tidal expiration. In men this can be up to 1200 mL. Residual volume is the amount of air that is left in the lungs after expelling the expiratory reserve volume. The residual volume makes breathing easier by preventing the alveoli from collapsing.

Respiratory capacity is the combination of two or more volumes. For example, total lung capacity is the sum of all of the lung volumes in the lungs during a given time. TLS is about 6000 mL air for men, and about 4200 mL for women.

In addition to the air that creates respiratory volumes, the respiratory system also contains anatomical dead space, which is air that is present in the airway that never reaches the alveoli and therefore never participates in gas exchange. Alveolar dead space involves air found within alveoli that are unable to function, such as those affected by disease or abnormal blood flow. Total dead space is the anatomical dead space and alveolar dead space together, and represents all of the air in the respiratory system that is not being used in the gas exchange process.

Respiratory Rate and Control of Ventilation

Both respiratory rate and depth are controlled by the respiratory center within the medulla oblongata and pons, which are stimulated by factors such as chemical and pH changes in the blood. These changes are sensed by central chemoreceptors, which are located in the brain, and peripheral chemoreceptors, which are located in the aortic arch and carotid arteries. A rise in carbon dioxide or a decline in oxygen levels in the blood stimulates an increase in respiratory rate and depth.


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