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Whose Air is it Anyway?

Whose Air is it Anyway?

The anatomical role of the lungs in breathing

breathing

 

          The lungs are often the first structures anyone thinks about when they are considering breathing, and rightfully so. They are the reason we are able to take oxygen from the air and deliver it to our blood, which in turn delivers it to the many tissues of our body, thus keeping us alive. Not to mention they provide the air with which we can actually use our voices! They serve other functions like gas waste elimination as well, but we won’t get into that here.

A view of the lungs and heart contained within the rib cage. Notice how the lungs actually cover the anterior part of the heart.

A view of the lungs and heart contained within the rib cage. Notice how the lungs actually cover the anterior part of the heart.

         Anatomically, the lungs sit within our rib cage on either side of our heart and on top of another important structure of the breathing apparatus: the diaphragm. From each of the lungs originates the branched tubes (bronchioles and bronchi) that get progressively less branched as they travel superiorly (upwards towards the mouth). When they at last join together to form one tube they are called the trachea, and this is the structure just below the larynx and vocal folds.

Another view of the lungs: sitting on top of the diaphragm this time. Notice the rib cage has been removed so you can get a better look at the relationship between the lungs and diaphragm.

Another view of the lungs: sitting on top of the diaphragm this time. Notice the rib cage has been removed so you can get a better look at the relationship between the lungs and diaphragm.

         Our lungs are naturally designed to keep us alive. They mostly work on a pressure system, where a drop in pressure within the lungs actually draws air from the outside in (inhalation), and conversely an increase in pressure in the lungs pushes air out (exhalation).

Try This: Take a deep breath in and then “hiss” out all of your air. Squeeze every last bit of air you can out of your lungs. Instead of now thinking “gasp for air,” just stand or sit up tall and think relax. You will naturally inhale.

         This phenomenon is quite useful in keeping us alive and is a result of our lungs being pulled out by the rib cage when we relax. As you can guess by the bony nature of the rib cage, it is protective, but this boniness also makes it rigid. So when the lungs are releasing their air and pulling the rib cage inwards with them, the pressure within them increases. But as soon as the pressure is no longer strong enough to resist the sturdy nature of the rib cage, the rib cage recoils out and pulls the lungs with them. This creates a negative or lower pressure in the lungs, which will in turn draw air back into the lungs for the cycle to continue. It’s a lot like what you see when you squeeze a stress ball. Pressure on the ball decreases when you stop squeezing, and the natural form recoils out so you can squeeze it again.

A schematic diagram of what happens during inhalation (left) and exhalation (right). During exhalation notice how the rib cage is squeezing the lungs as they exhale and they are getting smaller to push the air out.

A schematic diagram of what happens during inhalation (left) and exhalation (right). During exhalation notice how the rib cage is squeezing the lungs as they exhale and they are getting smaller to push the air out.

         This may seem like a complicated concept, but in reality it is a lot simpler when you actually focus on what your body actually feels like when it is breathing. When you breathe out, feel the tightening that occurs as the rib cage is drawn inwards by the lungs. Then when we relax, we want the lowest pressure possible in the lungs so we can get the most air in. This is why our rib cage will then expand outwards to draw the lungs out with them.

         Sometimes awareness of your body is half the battle to understanding the anatomy of breathing. As such a natural process it is more intuitive than we expect (Thank goodness!).

a view of the lungs, heart, and diaphragm in their anatomical position. Some major blood flow is also visible. A really beautifully intricate and fine-tuned system.

a view of the lungs, heart, and diaphragm in their anatomical position. Some major blood flow is also visible. A really beautifully intricate and fine-tuned system.

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