Mechanics of intercostal space and actions of external and internal intercostal muscles

J Clin Invest. 1985 Mar;75(3):850-7. doi: 10.1172/JCI111782.


It is conventionally considered that because of their fiber orientations, the external intercostal muscles elevate the ribs, whereas the internal interosseous intercostals lower the ribs. The mechanical action of the intercostal muscles, however, has never been studied directly, and the electromyographic observations supporting this conventional thinking must be interpreted with caution. In the present studies, the external and internal interosseous intercostal muscles have been separately stimulated in different interspaces at, above, and below end-expiratory rib cage volume in anesthetized dogs. The axial (cephalo-caudal) displacements of the ribs were measured using linear displacement transducers. The results indicate that when contracting in a single interspace and other muscles are relaxed, both the external and internal intercostals have a net rib elevating action at end-expiratory rib cage volume. This action increases as rib cage volume decreases, but it progressively decreases as rib cage volume increases such that at high rib cage volumes, both the external and internal intercostals lower the ribs. Stimulating the intercostal muscles in three adjacent intercostal spaces simultaneously produced similar directional rib motion results. We conclude that (a) in contrast with the conventional thinking, the external and internal interosseous intercostals acting alone have by and large a similar effect on the ribs into which they insert; (b) this effect is very much dependent on rib cage (lung) volume; and (c) intercostal muscle action is primarily determined by the resistance of the upper ribs to caudad displacement relative to the resistance of the lower ribs to cephalad displacement. The lateral intercostals, however, might be more involved in postural movements than in respiration. Their primary involvement in rotations of the trunk might account for the presence of two differently oriented muscle layers between the ribs.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Dogs
  • Electric Stimulation
  • Electromyography
  • Functional Residual Capacity
  • Intercostal Muscles / physiology*
  • Muscle Contraction*
  • Pressure
  • Pulmonary Ventilation
  • Respiration*
  • Ribs / physiology*
  • Sprains and Strains / physiopathology
  • Stress, Physiological / physiopathology