Muscles of breathing: Development, function, and patterns of activation

Jason Q. Pilarski, James C. Leiter, Ralph F. Fregosi

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

17 Scopus citations


This review is a comprehensive description of all muscles that assist lung inflation or deflation in any way. The developmental origin, anatomical orientation, mechanical action, innervation, and pattern of activation are described for each respiratory muscle fulfilling this broad definition. In addition, the circumstances in which each muscle is called upon to assist ventilation are discussed. The number of “respiratory” muscles is large, and the coordination of respiratory muscles with “nonrespiratory” muscles and in nonrespiratory activities is complex—commensurate with the diversity of activities that humans pursue, including sleep (27). The capacity for speech and adoption of the bipedal posture in human evolution has resulted in patterns of respiratory muscle activation that differ significantly from most other animals. A disproportionate number of respiratory muscles affect the nose, mouth, pharynx, and larynx, reflecting the vital importance of coordinated muscle activity to control upper airway patency during both wakefulness and sleep. The upright posture has freed the hands from locomotor functions, but the evolutionary history and ontogeny of forelimb muscles pervades the patterns of activation and the forces generated by these muscles during breathing. The distinction between respiratory and nonrespiratory muscles is artificial, as many “nonrespiratory” muscles can augment breathing under conditions of high ventilator demand. Understanding the ontogeny, innervation, activation patterns, and functions of respiratory muscles is clinically useful, particularly in sleep medicine. Detailed explorations of how the nervous system controls the multiple muscles required for successful completion of respiratory behaviors will continue to be a fruitful area of investigation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1025-1080
Number of pages56
JournalComprehensive Physiology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jul 2019

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Physiology
  • Physiology (medical)


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