Breathing Mechanism

Monday, 01 December 2008 15:55 Graham Williamson
ABSTRACT: Humans breathe by flattening and contracting the diagram for inhalation and
relaxing the diaphragm for exhalation. Intercostal muscles assist breathing.

Figure 1. Breathing Mechanism (click for an enlarged image)
In humans the chest cavity, or thorax, is separated from the abdominal cavity by a dome shaped
muscle called the diaphragm.
Two lungs are enclosed within the thorax, which is supported by the ribs, and they are connected
to the mouth and nose by the trachea. In an adult the trachea is about 11 cm long and 2.5 cm in
diameter. It is supported by several horseshoe-shaped sections of cartilage that prevent the
trachea collapsing and closing the airway.
On inhalation the diaphragm contracts and becomes flatter as it is lowered. In addition, the lower
ribs swing upwards and outwards as the external intercostal muscles contract. These
movements increase the volume of the thorax and the pressure within it falls to below
atmospheric pressure. Consequently, air rushes into the lungs to fill this partial vacuum.
Relaxation of the external intercostals and the diaphragm allow a set of opposing muscles, the
internal intercostal muscles, to return the thorax to its previous size. As the thorax diminishes
in size air is expelled from the lungs. All English speech sounds are composed using exhaled air
from the lungs, i.e. using a pulmonic air stream.

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