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The Basics of Breathing

Human life is unthinkable without oxygen. As trivial as this statement may sound, the processes that contribute to the transport of oxygen from the ambient air to the most diverse body cells are complex (de Marees, 2003). Due to the distance between the cells of the body and the ambient air, the human body needs special and complex transport systems, in the form of the respiratory system, cardiovascular system and blood as a means of transport, in order to ensure an adequate supply of oxygen. Several parts of the body are involved in breathing, such as…

Breathing – Anatomy:

Upper respiratory tract in the head area:

  • nasal cavity

  • throat (pharynx)

  • voice box (larynx)

Lower airways in the trunk area:

  • windpipe (trachea)

  • branches of the trachea (bronchi)

  • air sacs (alveoli)


nasal cavity:

The two nasal cavities are separated into two parts by the nasal septum and separated from the oral cavity by the palate. Inside, the surface is lined with mucous membranes and covered with cilia (Fuchs & Reiß, 1990).

Respiratory functions of the nasal cavity:

  • Warming of the breathing air to up to 35-37°C due to the mucous membranes, which are heavily supplied with blood

  • Humidification of the breathing air to prevent the following breathing structures from drying out

  • Cleaning of the breathing air, through the mucous membranes and the cilia, of dust and other small foreign bodies

Throat (pharynx):

The pharynx is an approximately 10-15 cm long muscular, tube-like structure that is lined with mucous membranes and connects our mouth and nose with the esophagus and trachea (de Marees, 2003). In addition, the pharynx opens into the larynx, which has its own function.

Voice box (Larynx):

The larynx, which adjoins the pharynx, consists of several cartilages (thyroid cartilage, cricoid cartilage, arytenoid cartilage x 2), which together with the bony tongue skeleton form the larynx skeleton (Fuchs, 1995).

Respiratory function of the larynx:

  • Passage for the breathing air, since the upper and lower airways are connected

  • Protects the lower airways through a protective reflex (cough)

windpipe (trachea):

This is a 10-15 cm long tube-like structure that lies in front of the esophagus. Up to 20 horseshoe-shaped cartilage braces stiffen the wall of the trachea, which divides into the two main bronchi at the level of the fourth thoracic vertebra (de Marees, 2003).

Bronchi and alveoli:

The two main bronchi open into the two lungs on the right and left. There they divide into smaller and smaller branches (bronchioles). At the terminal bronchi there are passages that have small, thin, shell-like bulges (alveoli or alveoli). These approximately 300 million alveoli are surrounded by a tightly knit network of pulmonary capillaries that are responsible for gas exchange (Levine / Stray-Gundersen, 1997).

Functional principle of the lungs and gas exchange:

In order to carry out the gas exchange quickly and sufficiently and to reach all tissue structures, two major mechanisms are at work in humans:

  • The rapid transport of gases, through the movement of gases or liquids.

This means the transport of gases through the respiratory tract. Through the bellows-like system (lungs, thorax, respiratory muscles).

  • rapid transport of gases through the vascular system through the heart, which acts as a valve pump (de Marees, 2003).

  • The relatively slow gas exchange through diffusion between the pulmonary alveoli and capillaries or between capillaries and cells. So that the gas exchange can also be carried out as quickly as possible and in sufficient quantity at these points, the diffusion distances are kept short (1/1000mm and less) and the exchange surfaces are large (lung capillary surface = approx. 100m² / muscle capillary surface = approx. 600m²) (Levine / Stray -Gundersen, 1997).

The chest (thorax) consists of the breastbone, the ribs and the thoracic spine. The joints between the ribs and the spine allow the ribs to move. As a result, the interior of the thorax is enlarged or reduced (de Marees, 2003).

The active process of inhalation (inspiration) comes about through the contraction of the diaphragm and the outer intercostal muscles. These contractions result in the expansion of the throax interior and thus in a negative pressure, which results in the filling of the lungs with air. The inhaled air usually has an oxygen content of 20.9%. In the alveoli, these oxygen particles diffuse into the blood and thus reach the cells where they are metabolized. The degradation products such as carbon dioxide are released back into the blood in the capillaries on the cells and transported to the lungs. The passive process of breathing out (expiration) comes about through the relaxation of the muscles. This is accompanied by a reduction in the size of the thoracic cavity and the escape of gases from the lungs (de Marees, 2003).

With deep breathing, as with physical exertion, the so-called auxiliary respiratory muscles (neck muscles, chest muscles, front saw muscles) are also involved in inspiration in addition to the elements mentioned above. This is the case as soon as the body requires a ventilated air volume of 50 l/min and more (de Marees, 2003).

During expiration, the abdominal muscles and the inner intercostal muscles help to reduce the size of the thoracic cavity and thus ensure adequate gas exchange (Fuchs, 1995).


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