Contractile properties of the human diaphragm during chronic hyperinflation

N Engl J Med. 1991 Sep 26;325(13):917-23. doi: 10.1056/NEJM199109263251304.


Background: In patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and hyperinflation of the lungs, dysfunction of the diaphragm may contribute to respiratory decompensation. We evaluated the contractile function of the diaphragm in well-nourished patients with stable COPD, using supramaximal, bilateral phrenic-nerve stimulation, which provides information about the strength and inspiratory action of the diaphragm.

Methods: In eight patients with COPD and five control subjects of similar age, the transdiaphragmatic pressure generated by the twitch response to phrenic-nerve stimulation was recorded at various base-line lung volumes, from functional residual capacity to total lung capacity, and during relaxation and graded voluntary efforts at functional residual capacity (twitch occlusion).

Results: At functional residual capacity, the twitch transdiaphragmatic pressure ranged from 10.9 to 26.6 cm of water (1.07 to 2.60 kPa) in the patients and from 19.8 to 37.1 cm of water (1.94 to 3.64 kPa) in the controls, indicating considerable overlap between the two groups. The ratio of esophageal pressure to twitch transdiaphragmatic pressure, an index of the inspiratory action of the diaphragm, was -0.50 +/- 0.05 in the patients, as compared with -0.43 +/- 0.02 in the controls (indicating more efficient inspiratory action in the patients than in the controls). At comparable volumes, the twitch transdiaphragmatic pressure and esophageal-to-transdiaphragmatic pressure ratio were higher in the patients than in normal subjects, indicating that the strength and inspiratory action of the diaphragm in the patients were actually better than in the controls. Twitch occlusion (a measure of the maximal activation of the diaphragm) indicated near-maximal activation in the patients with COPD, and the maximal transdiaphragmatic pressure was 106.9 +/- 13.8 cm of water (10.48 +/- 1.35 kPa).

Conclusions: The functioning of the diaphragms of the patients with stable COPD is as good as in normal subjects at the same lung volume. Compensatory phenomena appear to counterbalance the deleterious effects of hyperinflation on the contractility and inspiratory action of the diaphragm in patients with COPD. Our findings cast doubt on the existence of chronic fatigue of the diaphragm in such patients and therefore on the need for therapeutic interventions aimed at improving diaphragm function.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Diaphragm / physiopathology*
  • Functional Residual Capacity
  • Humans
  • Lung / physiopathology*
  • Lung Diseases, Obstructive / physiopathology*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Muscle Contraction
  • Phrenic Nerve / physiology
  • Pressure
  • Respiration
  • Total Lung Capacity