Background: The unprotected upper airway tends to obstruct during general anesthesia, yet its mechanical properties have not been studied in detail during this condition.
Methods: To study its collapsibility, pressure-flow relationships of the upper airway were obtained at three levels of anesthesia (end-tidal isoflurane = 1.2%, 0.8%, and 0.4%) in 16 subjects while supine and spontaneously breathing on nasal continuous positive airway pressure. At each level of anesthesia, mask pressure was transiently reduced from a pressure sufficient to abolish inspiratory flow limitation (11.8 +/- 2.7 cm H(2)O) to pressures resulting in variable degrees of flow limitation. The relation between mask pressure and maximal inspiratory flow was determined, and the critical pressure at which the airway occluded was recorded. The site of collapse was determined from simultaneous measurements of nasopharyngeal, oropharyngeal, and hypopharyngeal and esophageal pressures.
Results: The airway remained hypotonic (minimal or absent intramuscular genioglossus electromyogram activity) throughout each study. During flow-limited breaths, inspiratory flow decreased linearly with decreasing mask pressure (r(2) = 0.86 +/- 0.17), consistent with Starling resistor behavior. At end-tidal isoflurane of 1.2%, critical pressure was 1.1 +/- 3.5 cm H O; at 0.4% it decreased to -0.2 +/- 3.6 cm H(2)O ( < 0.05), indicating decreased airway collapsibility. This decrease was associated with a decrease in end-expiratory esophageal pressure of 0.6 +/- 0.9 cm H(2)O ( < 0.05), suggesting an increased lung volume. Collapse occurred in the retropalatal region in 14 subjects and in the retrolingual region in 2 subjects, and did not change with anesthetic depth.
Conclusions: Isoflurane anesthesia is associated with decreased muscle activity and increased collapsibility of the upper airway. In this state it adopts the behavior of a Starling resistor. The decreased collapsibility observed with decreasing anesthetic depth was not a consequence of neuromuscular activity, which was unchanged. Rather, it may be related to increased lung volume and its effect on airway wall longitudinal tension. The predominant site of collapse is the soft palate.