inhalation and exhalation of air

Lung Compliance, control of respiration and pathway of air

Lung Compliance, control of respiration and pathway of air

Lung Compliance is the magnitude of the change in lung volume produced by a change in pulmonary pressure. Compliance can be considered the opposite of stiffness. A low lung compliance would mean that the lungs would need a greater than average change in intrapleural pressure to change the volume of the lungs. 

A high lung compliance would indicate that little pressure difference in intrapleural pressure is needed to change the volume of the lungs. More energy is required to breathe normally in a person with low lung compliance. Persons with low lung compliance due to disease therefore tend to take shallow breaths and breathe more frequently.

Determination of Lung Compliance: two major things determine lung compliance. The first is the elasticity of the lung tissue. Any thickening of lung tissues due to disease will decrease lung compliance. The second is surface tensions at air water interfaces in the alveoli. The surface of the alveoli cells is moist. The attractive force, between the water cells on the alveoli, is called surface tension. Thus, energy is required not only to expand the tissues of the lung but also to overcome the surface tension of the water that lines the alveoli.

To overcome the forces of surface tension, certain alveoli cells (Type II pneumocytes) secrete a protein and lipid complex called “”Surfactant””, which acts like a detergent by disrupting the hydrogen bonding of water that lines the alveoli, hence decreasing surface tension.

Control of respiration

Respiratory System: Upper and Lower Respiratory Tracts For the sake of convenience, we will divide the respiratory system in to the upper and lower respiratory tracts:

Upper Respiratory Tract

The upper respiratory tract consists of the nose and the pharynx. Its primary function is to receive the air from the external environment and filter, warm, and humidify it before it reaches the delicate lungs where gas exchange will occur.

Air enters through the nostrils of the nose and is partially filtered by the nose hairs, then flows into the nasal cavity. The nasal cavity is lined with epithelial tissue, containing blood vessels, which help warm the air; and secrete mucous, which further filters the air. The endothelial lining of the nasal cavity also contains tiny hair-like projections, called cilia.  The cilia serve to transport dust and other foreign particles, trapped in mucous, to the back of the nasal cavity and to the pharynx. There the mucus is either coughed out, or swallowed and digested by powerful stomach acids. After passing through the nasal cavity, the air flows down the pharynx to the larynx.

Lower Respiratory Tract

The lower respiratory tract starts with the larynx, and includes the trachea, the two bronchi that branch from the trachea, and the lungs themselves. This is where gas exchange actually takes place.

The larynx (plural larynges), colloquially known as the voice box, is an organ in our neck involved in protection of the trachea and sound production. The larynx houses the vocal cords, and is situated just below where the tract of the pharynx splits into the trachea and the esophagus. The larynx contains two important structures: the epiglottis and the vocal cords.

The epiglottis is a flap of cartilage located at the opening to the larynx. During swallowing, the larynx (at the epiglottis and at the glottis) closes to prevent swallowed material from entering the lungs; the larynx is also pulled upwards to assist this process. Stimulation of the larynx by ingested matter produces a strong cough reflex to protect the lungs. Note: choking occurs when the epiglottis fails to cover the trachea, and food becomes lodged in our windpipe.

The vocal cords consist of two folds of connective tissue that stretch and vibrate when air passes through them, causing vocalization. The length the vocal cords are stretched determines what pitch the sound will have. The strength of expiration from the lungs also contributes to the loudness of the sound. Our ability to have some voluntary control over the respiratory system enables us to sing and to speak. In order for the larynx to function and produce sound, we need air. That is why we can’t talk when we’re swallowing. 

The Pathway of Air, Inspiration and Expiration

The Pathway of Air, Inspiration and Expiration

When one breathes air in at sea level, the inhalation is composed of different gases. These gases and their quantities are Oxygen which makes up 21%, Nitrogen which is 78%, Carbon Dioxide with 0.04% and others with significantly smaller portions.

In the process of breathing, air enters into the nasal cavity through the nostrils and is filtered by coarse hairs (vibrissae) and mucous that are found there. The vibrissae filter macro-particles, which are particles of large size. Dust, pollen, smoke, and fine particles are trapped in the mucous that lines the nasal cavities (hollow spaces within the bones of the skull that warm, moisten, and filter the air). There are three bony projections inside the nasal cavity. The superior, middle, and inferior nasal conchae. Air passes between these conchae via the nasal meatuses.

Air then travels past the nasopharynx, oropharynx, and Laryngopharynx, which are the three portions that make up the pharynx. The pharynx is a funnel-shaped tube that connects our nasal and oral cavities to the larynx.


The tonsils which are part of the lymphatic system, form a ring at the connection of the oral cavity and the pharynx. Here, they protect against foreign invasion of antigens. 

Therefore the respiratory tract aids the immune system through this protection. Then the air travels through the larynx. The larynx closes at the epiglottis to prevent the passage of food or drink as a protection to our trachea and lungs. The larynx is also our voice box; it contains vocal cords, in which it produces sound. Sound is produced from the vibration of the vocal cords when air passes through them.

The trachea, which is also known as our windpipe, has ciliated cells and mucous secreting cells lining it, and is held open by C-shaped cartilage rings. One of its functions is similar to the larynx and nasal cavity, by way of protection from dust and other particles.

The dust will adhere to the sticky mucous and the cilia helps propel it back up the trachea, to where it is either swallowed or coughed up. The mucociliary escalator extends from the top of the trachea all the way down to the bronchioles, which we will discuss later. Through the trachea, the air is now able to pass into the bronchi.


Inspiration is initiated by contraction of the diaphragm and in some cases the intercostals muscles when they receive nervous impulses. During normal quiet breathing, the phrenic nerves stimulate the diaphragm to contract and move downward into the abdomen. This downward movement of the diaphragm enlarges the thorax. When necessary, the intercostal muscles also increase the thorax by contacting and drawing the ribs upward and outward.

As the diaphragm contracts inferiorly and thoracic muscles pull the chest wall outwardly, the volume of the thoracic cavity increases. The lungs are held to the thoracic wall by negative pressure in the pleural cavity, a very thin space filled with a few milliliters of lubricating pleural fluid. The negative pressure in the pleural cavity is enough to hold the lungs open in spite of the inherent elasticity of the tissue. 

Hence, as the thoracic cavity increases in volume the lungs are pulled from all sides to expand, causing a drop in the pressure (a partial vacuum) within the lung itself (but note that this negative pressure is still not as great as the negative pressure within the pleural cavity–otherwise the lungs would pull away from the chest wall). 

Assuming the airway is open, air from the external environment then follows its pressure gradient down and expands the alveoli of the lungs, where gas exchange with the blood takes place.

As long as pressure within the alveoli is lower than atmospheric pressure air will continue to move inwardly, but as soon as the pressure is stabilized air movement stops.


During quiet breathing, expiration is normally a passive process and does not require muscles to work (rather it is the result of the muscles relaxing). When the lungs are stretched and expanded, stretch receptors within the alveoli send inhibitory nerve impulses to the medulla oblongata, causing it to stop sending signals to the rib cage and diaphragm to contract. 

The muscles of respiration and the lungs themselves are elastic, so when the diaphragm and intercostal muscles relax there is an elastic recoil, which creates a positive pressure (pressure in the lungs becomes greater than atmospheric pressure), and air moves out of the lungs by flowing down its pressure gradient.

Although the respiratory system is primarily under involuntary control, and regulated by the medulla oblongata, we have some voluntary control over it also. This is due to the higher brain function of the cerebral cortex.
When under physical or emotional stress, more frequent and deep breathing is needed, and both inspiration and expiration will work as active processes. Additional muscles in the rib cage forcefully contract and push air quickly out of the lungs. 

In addition to deeper breathing, when coughing or sneezing we exhale forcibly. Our abdominal muscles will contract suddenly (when there is an urge to cough or sneeze), raising the abdominal pressure. The rapid increase in pressure pushes the relaxed diaphragm up against the pleural cavity. This causes air to be forced out of the lungs.

Another function of the respiratory system is to sing and to speak. By exerting conscious control over our breathing and regulating flow of air across the vocal cords we are able to create and modify sounds

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