The pulmonary circulation is a high-flow and low-pressure circuit, with an average resistance of 1 mmHg/min/L in young adults, increasing to 2.5 mmHg/min/L over four to six decades of life. Pulmonary vascular mechanics at exercise are best described by distensible models. Exercise does not appear to affect the time constant of the pulmonary circulation or the longitudinal distribution of resistances. Very high flows are associated with high capillary pressures, up to a 20 to 25 mmHg threshold associated with interstitial lung edema and altered ventilation/perfusion relationships. Pulmonary artery pressures of 40 to 50 mmHg, which can be achieved at maximal exercise, may correspond to the extreme of tolerable right ventricular afterload. Distension of capillaries that decrease resistance may be of adaptative value during exercise, but this is limited by hypoxemia from altered diffusion/perfusion relationships. Exercise in hypoxia is associated with higher pulmonary vascular pressures and lower maximal cardiac output, with increased likelihood of right ventricular function limitation and altered gas exchange by interstitial lung edema. Pharmacological interventions aimed at the reduction of pulmonary vascular tone have little effect on pulmonary vascular pressure-flow relationships in normoxia, but may decrease resistance in hypoxia, unloading the right ventricle and thereby improving exercise capacity. Exercise in patients with pulmonary hypertension is associated with sharp increases in pulmonary artery pressure and a right ventricular limitation of aerobic capacity. Exercise stress testing to determine multipoint pulmonary vascular pressures-flow relationships may uncover early stage pulmonary vascular disease.
© 2012 American Physiological Society