Journal of Applied Physiology

Thoracic influence on upper airway patency

W. B. Van de Graaff


Patency of the upper airway (UA) is usually considered to be maintained by the activity of muscles in the head and neck. These include cervical muscles that provide caudal traction on the UA. The thorax also applies caudal traction to the UA. To observe whether this thoracic traction can also improve UA patency, we measured resistance of the UA (RUA) during breathing in the presence and absence of UA muscle activity. Fifteen anesthetized dogs breathed through tracheostomy tubes. RUA was calculated from the pressure drop of a constant flow through the isolated UA. RUA decreased 31 +/- 5% (SEM) during inspiration. After hyperventilating seven of these dogs to apnea, we maximally stimulated the phrenic nerves to produce paced diaphragmatic breathing. Despite absence of UA muscle activity, RUA fell 51 +/- 11% during inspiration. Graded changes were produced by reduced stimulation. In six other dogs we denervated all UA muscles. RUA still fell 25 +/- 7% with inspiration in these spontaneously breathing animals. When all caudal ventrolateral cervical structures mechanically linking the thorax to the UA were severed, RUA increased and respiratory fluctuations ceased. These findings indicate that tonic and phasic forces generated by the thorax can improve UA patency. Inspiratory increases in UA patency cannot be attributed solely to activity of UA muscles.