Mechanics of Breathing

Boyle's Law describes the relationship between the pressure (P) and the volume (V) of a gas. The law states that if the volume increases, then the pressure must decrease (or vice versa). This relationship is often written algebraically as PV = constant, or P 1V 1 = P 2V 2. Both equations state that the product of the pressure and volume remains the same. (Boyle's Law applies only when the temperature does not change.)

Breathing occurs when the contraction or relaxation of muscles around the lungs changes the total volume of air within the air passages (bronchi, bronchioles) inside the lungs. When the volume of the lungs changes, the pressure of the air in the lungs changes in accordance with Boyle's Law. If the pressure is greater in the lungs than outside the lungs, then air rushes out. If the opposite occurs, then air rushes in. Here is a summary of the process:

  1. Inspiration occurs when the inspiratory muscles—that is, the diaphragm and the external intercostal muscles—contract. Contraction of the diaphragm (the skeletal muscle below the lungs) causes an increase in the size of the thoracic cavity, while contraction of the external intercostal muscles elevates the ribs and sternum. Thus, both muscles cause the lungs to expand, increasing the volume of their internal air passages. In response, the air pressure inside the lungs decreases below that of air outside the body. Because gases move from regions of high pressure to low pressure, air rushes into the lungs.

  2. Expiration occurs when the diaphragm and external intercostal muscles relax. In response, the elastic fibers in lung tissue cause the lungs to recoil to their original volume. The pressure of the air inside the lungs then increases above the air pressure outside the body, and air rushes out. During high rates of ventilation, expiration is facilitated by contraction of the expiratory muscles (the intercostal muscles and the abdominal muscles).

Lung compliance is a measure of the ability of the lungs and thoracic cavity to expand. Due to the elasticity of lung tissue and the low surface tension of the moisture in the lungs (from the surfactant), the lungs normally have high compliance.