Body processes

Chest Breathing – Function, Task & Diseases


Chest breathing (also thoracic or costal breathing ) is a special form of breathing in which the ribs actively rise and fall. Due to the resulting negative pressure, the air flows into the lungs ( inspiration ) or is pressed out of them ( expiration ) due to the elasticity of the lungs and chest.

What is chest breathing?

Chest breathing is a type of external breathing. The exchange of breathing air between an organism and its environment characterizes external respiration, while internal respiration refers to energy conversion processes within the body or in individual cells .

Medicine also knows chest breathing as thoracic breathing. The term comes etymologically from the anatomical term thorax , which means the chest. The opposite of chest breathing is abdominal or diaphragmatic breathing, which is largely controlled by other muscle groups.

Diaphragmatic breathing accounts for about two-thirds of human breathing, while thoracic breathing accounts for the remaining third of external breathing. In addition, chest breathing requires more energy than diaphragmatic breathing and is mainly used when there is greater physical and mental stress. For this reason, chest breathing is considered characteristic of stressful states.

Function & task

During inhalation during chest breathing, the external intercostal muscles (musculus intercostalis externus) contract. It is located above the thorax and runs diagonally across the individual ribs towards the abdomen. The outer intercostal muscles originate from one rib and attach to the following rib. Their contraction actively lifts the ribs and rotates them longitudinally outwards. As a result, the respiratory muscles expand the chest both laterally and forwards and backwards: the volume of the lungs increases thanks to the elastic tissue that makes up the lung wall.This process creates negative pressure inside the chest: the increased volume of the lungs now has a negative pressure in relation to the environment with the same mass of breathing air. This automatically allows air to flow into the two lungs through the open air seal in the throat and through the airways . Medicine also refers to this process of inhalation as inspiration and accordingly calls the outer intercostal muscles the auxiliary inspirator because of their supporting function.

During the reverse process, exhalation or expiration, the air leaves the lungs again. To do this, the chest muscles relax. Due to the lack of tension and the elasticity of the chest and lungs, the ribs sink and rotate around their longitudinal axis back to their original position.

Healthy people breathe in the mixed breathing mode described above during thoracic breathing. However, during acute shortness of breath, for example as a result of an asthmatic illness, what is known as auxiliary breathing predominantly occurs . The auxiliary respiratory muscles are also known as the accessory respiratory muscles and participate in inspiration during thoracic breathing under adverse circumstances.

This muscle group includes the internal intercostal muscles (musculus intercostalis internus), which lie beneath the external intercostal muscles, and the subcostal muscles (musculus subcostalis), which are located on the inside of the ribs. The lower rib muscles originate near the angles of the ribs and span across one rib to attach to the next but one rib. Other auxiliary respiratory muscles are the straight abdominal muscle (musculus rectus abdominis) and the external and internal oblique abdominal muscle (musculus obliquus externus abdominis or musculus obliquus internus abdominis).

Diseases & Ailments

Since abdominal breathing, in contrast to chest breathing, promotes physical and mental relaxation, chest breathing is considered a less favorable form of breathing. Wrong posture , poor posture , physical malformations and both acute and chronic lack of exercise can lead to the relationship between chest and abdominal breathing shifting in favor of chest breathing.As a result, the risk of stress-associated illnesses and respiratory infections may increase: shallower breathing may result in only partial air exchange, which can lead to low oxygen uptake . Symptoms such as tiredness , mild concentration problems and general malaise may occur as consequences.

Repeated complaints occur when breathing through the chest, especially in the context of asthmatic attacks. Acute shortness of breath characterizes the attacks that occur as a result of various underlying diseases. A common asthmatic disease is bronchial asthma or bronchial asthma. As the name suggests, the cause is narrowing of the bronchi . Medicine also calls them bronchial obstruction. It can take both fully and partially reversible (invertible) forms.

Allergic reactions are possible causes , for example sensitivity to animal hair, pollen or house dust. In addition, infections , handling substances that irritate the respiratory tract, and psychological factors are possible triggers. In these cases, doctors speak of non-allergic asthma.

An asthmatic attack causes acute shortness of breath, which produces the auxiliary breathing described above. The aim of this mechanism is to force more air into the lungs and thus counteract the impending lack of oxygen. This could occur as a result of impaired breathing and, in the worst case, lead to an undersupply of the organs.

Over a long period of time, a lack of oxygen potentially causes cell death, including nerve cells in the brain . Brain damage is therefore a typical consequence of a prolonged lack of oxygen, even if there are no fatal consequences.

Lisa Newlon
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Hello! I am Lisa Newlon, and I am a medical writer and researcher with over 10 years of experience in the healthcare industry. I have a Master’s degree in Medicine, and my deep understanding of medical terminology, practices, and procedures has made me a trusted source of information in the medical world.