Pediatric Airway Risks: Inefficient Mechanics of Breathing

Inefficient mechanics of breathing is one major risk factor for infants and young children because it increases work of breathing. In many ways pediatric anatomy and physiology predisposes a child to respiratory distress and respiratory failure.

(Illustrations copyright Whitten, Pediatric Airway Management: A Step By Step Guide)

Mechanics of Normal Breathing

Normal quiet breathing is effortless. The rate is neither too fast nor too slow, however, rate varies greatly depending on age and metabolic rate. The chest rises and falls easily and symmetrically. Air flows into and out of the lungs through the open airway based on changes in air pressure.

Adult Chest Cavity Anatomy Makes Breathing Efficient

Let’s start by reviewing the adult mechanics of breathing. The angulation and rigidity of the ribs during the breathing cycle maximizes efficiency in the adult. The lungs are housed in a skeletal cage formed by the ribs. In order to initiate airflow into the lungs, pressure in the lungs must drop below atmospheric pressure. The body accomplishes this by expanding the airtight chest cavity, thereby decreasing the pressure inside. Two motions are involved:

  • expansion of the rib cage by contraction of intercostal muscles
  • contraction and descent of the diaphragm

The ribs form three functional groupings. The first rib attaches rigidly to the sternum to anchor the rib cage. It hardly moves during respiration.

The 8th through 12th ribs expand mostly laterally during inhalation. This effectively increases intra-abdominal space for organs pushed downward by the diaphragm. The motion is like a bucket handle, swinging up and down toward the side away from the centerline and expanding the width of the chest cavity.

The 2nd to 7th ribs flexibly expand mostly anterior-posterior with a little lateral motion. This motion is like a pump handle — mostly up and down in the front of the chest, expanding the depth of the chest cavity.

Illustration comparing the motions of ribs 8-12 to the motion of ribs 2-7. Each set has unique movements for expanding the rib cage.

a. Ribs 8-12 expand mostly laterally, like a bucket handle. b. Ribs 2-7 expand mostly anteriorly, like a pump handle.

Diaphragmatic Contaction Is The Bellows

The diaphragms are two large dome-shaped sheets of muscle separating the thoracic cavities from the abdominal cavity. As the diaphragms contract with each inhalation, they act like a bellows. During inhalation the bellows descends and flattens, increasing intrathoracic volume and decreasing intrathoracic pressure. This pulls air into the lungs as they inflate.

During exhalation, the diaphragm and intercostals relax. As a result, the diaphragms rise and become dome shaped again, decreasing intrathoracic volume and raising intrathoracic pressure. Lungs deflate. The patient exhales. Unless there is obstruction, exhalation is passive, requiring little energy.

Full contraction of the intercostals and the diaphragm allows for much greater expansion of the chest cavity and produces a larger breath, assuming that air is free to flow into the lungs..

Illustration showing how relaxation and contraction of the diaphragm produces air flow into and out o the lungs by changing air pressure inside the thoracic cavity.

The diaphragm contracts and relaxes during breathing, expanding and contracting the volume of the thoracic cage. The associated air pressure changes inside the thoracic cavity cause the lungs to expand (a) and to deflate (b).

What Factors Affect Ease of Air Flow?

A variety of factors affect how easily that air flows:

  • breathing rate
    • too rapid or too slow a rate impairs air movement
  • inspired tidal volume
    • ventilating close to dead space volume causes CO2 levels to rise
  • airway resistance
    • smaller airways have higher resistance than larger airways
    • increased resistance impairs airflow
  • tissue resistance
    • increased frictional resistance of lung tissues and chest wall increases work of breathing and limits tidal volume
  • elastic recoil
    • with weaker elastic recoil, airways tend to remain partially collapsed on exhalation rather than passively reinflate to baseline
  • compliance
    • poor compliance makes it harder to distend the lungs, limiting air movement and increasing the work of breathing

Changes in any of these parameters can significantly affect adequacy of respiration and how hard it is to take a breath.

Anatomical Features That Increase Pediatric Work of Breathing

When the patient works hard to take a breath, for example against an obstruction, he generates a more negative pressure inside the chest cavity.  The intercostal muscles more fully contract. Retractions, noisy breathing, and a rocking chest wall motion are common. As respiratory failure progresses, the pattern of respiration becomes more and more inefficient and ineffective. Work of breathing increases.

In the patient exhausted to the point of respiratory collapse, or in the patient with respiratory depression due to altered mental status, there may be little effort to breathe. Hypoventilation worsens hypoxia, hypercarbia, and respiratory acidosis. Level of sedation increases, further depressing respiratory drive.

Normal infants and small children have significant anatomic predispositions to serious disruption of their mechanics of breathing if they become sick or injured.

Factors Increasing Infant Work of Breathing

The differences in the mechanics of breathing of small children compared to adults places them at much higher risk of respiratory failure.

Evaluating the degree of respiratory compromise is a judgment call. Mild or potential obstruction may have no signs or symptoms at all. In certain patients such as facial burn victims or patients having a severe allergic reaction, mild airway obstruction can convert to total obstruction quickly as edema forms. Constant reassessment is important so that you may intervene early if necessary — before the airway is lost.

The Infant’s Chest Wall Increases The Work Of Breathing

In the infant or small child, the chest wall is more box-like in shape compared to the adult’s. The ribs are more at right angles to the vertebral column and won’t be angulated like an adult until age 10 years. This makes the pediatric chest wall mechanically less efficient and limits potential lung expansion.

comparison infant vs adult rib angulation

The shape and flexibility of the infant chest, and the shape and immaturity of the diaphragmatic muscle both increase the risk of respiratory failure when the child is ill.

Babies “belly breathe”. To take a deep breath, the infant’s chest therefore expands a little and the abdomen rises a lot as the diaphragm descends, pushing abdominal contents down and out of the way.  Anything that interferes with descent of the diaphragm, such as a stomach or intestines distended with air or liquid, can seriously impair an infant’s breathing.

The infant’s chest wall is also more compliant than an adult’s, with an elastic recoil close to zero because of the lack of rib cage ossification. When the infant takes a breath against resistance, such as with airway obstruction or poor pulmonary compliance from pneumonia, the chest wall actually moves inward as the belly moves outward. The inward movement of the chest wall decreases the amount of air that enters. A rocking chest wall motion is very common in children with even partial airway obstruction.

Illustration showing the components of infant anatomy that make the mechanics of breathing inefficient, increasing risk of respiratory failure.

The inefficient mechanics of infant/toddler breathing increases the risk of respiratory failure.

Because chest wall structure and “belly breathing” limit the ability to increase tidal volume, the baby must rely on respiratory rate increases to compensate for stress. The harder a child tries to breathe, the less efficient and more labored breathing becomes.

You can see video of a toddler with croup and the signs of airway obstruction described above here.

Monitor Your Pediatric Patient Carefully

Watch for signs of airway obstruction.

chart listing the signs of airway obstruction

Infants and toddlers tire easily when they have airway or respiratory compromise. Respiratory distress can easily progress to respiratory failure. Assess your patients carefully and monitor for change. Always ask yourself: “How well is my patient breathing?” Follow the link below for discussions and video of recognizing and treating airway obstruction.

Recognizing Airway Obstruction May Save Your Patient’s Life

Click here see a video clip comparing the signs of airway obstruction in a pediatric patient with a more normal breathing pattern once the obstruction is relieved.

May The Force Be With You

Christine E Whitten MD, author:
Anyone Can Intubate: A Step By Step Guide
Pediatric Airway Management: A Step By Step Guide

Button to see inside or buy the book Pediatric Airway Management: A Step-by-Step Guide by Christine Whitten    Button link to see inside or buy the book Anyone Can Intubate, A Step By Step Guide to Intubation and Airway Management, 5th edition on amazon

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Laryngospasm is a Life-Threatening Emergency

Laryngospasm is one of the more frightening events in anesthesia: the protective, reflex, spasmodic closure of the vocal cords that occurs when the vocal cords are stimulated.  When laryngospasm occurs, vocal cord closure can be so forceful that it can prevent all ventilation or even the passage of the endotracheal tube. Life-threatening hypoxia can quickly follow. Other potential complications include post obstructive pulmonary edema, and possibly even cardiac arrest.

Photo of laryngospasm demonstrating closure of the vocal cords and false cords Continue reading