Respiratory action of the intercostal muscles

Physiol Rev. 2005 Apr;85(2):717-56. doi: 10.1152/physrev.00007.2004.


The mechanical advantages of the external and internal intercostals depend partly on the orientation of the muscle but mostly on interspace number and the position of the muscle within each interspace. Thus the external intercostals in the dorsal portion of the rostral interspaces have a large inspiratory mechanical advantage, but this advantage decreases ventrally and caudally such that in the ventral portion of the caudal interspaces, it is reversed into an expiratory mechanical advantage. The internal interosseous intercostals in the caudal interspaces also have a large expiratory mechanical advantage, but this advantage decreases cranially and, for the upper interspaces, ventrally as well. The intercartilaginous portion of the internal intercostals (the so-called parasternal intercostals), therefore, has an inspiratory mechanical advantage, whereas the triangularis sterni has a large expiratory mechanical advantage. These rostrocaudal gradients result from the nonuniform coupling between rib displacement and lung expansion, and the dorsoventral gradients result from the three-dimensional configuration of the rib cage. Such topographic differences in mechanical advantage imply that the functions of the muscles during breathing are largely determined by the topographic distributions of neural drive. The distributions of inspiratory and expiratory activity among the muscles are strikingly similar to the distributions of inspiratory and expiratory mechanical advantages, respectively. As a result, the external intercostals and the parasternal intercostals have an inspiratory function during breathing, whereas the internal interosseous intercostals and the triangularis sterni have an expiratory function.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Humans
  • Intercostal Muscles / innervation
  • Intercostal Muscles / physiology*
  • Nervous System Physiological Phenomena
  • Respiratory Muscles / physiology
  • Respiratory Physiological Phenomena*