Skip to main content
Medicine LibreTexts

21.5B: Inspiration

  • Page ID
    7986
  • [ "article:topic" ]

    Inhalation is the flow of air into an organism that is due to a pressure difference between the atmosphere and alveolus.

     

    LEARNING OBJECTIVE

     

    Outline the mechanics of inspiration

     

    KEY TAKEAWAYS

    Key Points

     

    • In humans, inspiration is the flow of air into an organism from the external environment, through the airways, and into the alveoli.
    • Inhalation begins with the onset of a contraction of the diaphragm, which results in expansion of the thoracic and pleural cavities and a decrease in pressure (also called an increase in negative pressure).
    • There are many accessory muscles involved in inhalation—such as external intercostal muscles, scalene muscles, the sternocleidomastoid muscle, and the trapezius muscle.
    • Breathing only with the accessory muscles instead of the diaphragm is considered inefficient, and provides much less air during inhalation.
    • The negative pressure in the pleural cavity is enough to hold the lungs open in spite of the inherent elasticity of the tissue. The thoracic cavity increases in volume causing a drop in the pressure (a partial vacuum) within the lung itself.
    • 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.

     

    Key Terms

     

    • inspiration: The drawing of air into the lungs, accomplished in mammals by elevation of the chest walls and flattening of the diaphragm.
    • accessory muscles: Muscles that help expand small parts of the thoracic cavity, either working in addition to the diaphragm or substituting for it if the diaphragm becomes injured.
    • intrapleural pressure: The pressure inside the pleural cavity, which is negative compared to outside air and becomes even more negative during inspiration.

    Inspiration refers to inhalation—it is the flow of the respiratory current into an organism. In humans it is the movement of ambient air through the airways and into the alveoli of the lungs.

    The Process of Inspiration

    Inspiration begins with the contraction of the diaphragm, which results in expansion of the thoracic cavity and the pleural cavity. The pleural cavity normally has a lower pressure compared to ambient air (–3 mmHg normally and typically –6 mmHg during inspiration), so when it expands, the pressure inside the lungs drops.

    Pressure and volume are inversely related to each other, so the drop in pressure inside the lung increases the volume of air inside the lung by drawing outside air into the lung. As the volume of air inside the lung increases, the lung pushes back against the expanded pleural cavity as a result of the drop in intrapleural pressure (pressure inside the pleural cavity).

    The force of the intrapleural pressure is even enough to hold the lungs open during inpiration despite the natural elastic recoil of the lung. The alveolar sacs also expand as a result of being filled with air during inspiration, which contributes to the expansion inside the lung.

    Eventually, the pressure inside the lung becomes less negative as the volume inside the lung increases and, when pressure and volume stabilize, air movement stops, inspiration ends, and expiration (exhalation) will begin. Deeper breaths have higher tidal volumes and require a greater drop in intrapleural pressure compared to shallower breaths.

    This is a schematic drawing of the entire respiratory tract, include inner details such as the aveoli. It illustrates the respiratory tract as a complex, connected system where resistance in any part of it can cause problems.

     

    Respiratory System: Resistance in any part of the respiratory tract can cause problems.

     

    Accessory Muscles of Inspiration

    The diaphragm is the primary muscle involved in breathing, however several other muscles play a role in certain circumstances. These muscles are referred to as accessory muscles of inhalation.

    • External intercostal muscles: Muscles located between the ribs that help the thoracic cavity and pleural cavity expand during quiet and forced inspiration.
    • Scalene muscles: Muscles in the neck that lift the upper ribs (and thoracic cavity around the upper ribs) to help with breathing. They provide a mechanism for inspiration when the diaphragm is injured and can’t contract normally.
    • Sternocleidomastoid muscle: Muscles that connect the sternum to the neck and allow for rotation and turning of the head. They can lift the upper ribs like the scalene muscles can.
    • Trapezius muscle: Muscles in the shoulders that retract the scapula and expand the upper part of the thoracic cavity.

    The accessory muscles assist breathing by expanding the thoracic cavity in a similar way to the diaphragm. However, they expand a much smaller part of the thoracic cavity compared to diaphragm. Therefore they should not be used as the primary mechanism of inhalation, because they take in much less air compared to the diaphragm resulting in a much lower tidal volume.

    For example, singers need a lot of air to support the powerful voice production needed for singing. A common problem in novice singers is breathing with the accessory muscles of the neck, shoulder, and ribs instead of the diaphragm, which gives them a much smaller air supply than what is needed to sing properly.