Respiratory muscles and ventilatory failure: 1993 perspective

Am J Med Sci. 1993 Jun;305(6):394-402. doi: 10.1097/00000441-199306000-00008.


Some conditions that predispose to ventilatory failure increase the work of breathing (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease [COPD], obesity, kyphoscoliosis), whereas others cause severe respiratory muscle weakness. Specific reasons for muscle weakness include critical illness (electrolyte imbalance, acidemia, shock, sepsis), chronic illness (poor nutrition, cachexia), and neuromuscular diseases. Inspiratory muscle weakness from mechanical disadvantage to the diaphragm is characteristic of asthma and COPD. The increased work of breathing combined with muscle weakness increases the pressure needed to inspire a breath and decreases maximal inspiratory pressure. When this pressure exceeds 0.4, dyspnea and inspiratory muscle fatigue ensue. One way to lower this pressure and avert fatigue is to lower the tidal volume. Ventilatory drive is high, not low, in ventilatory failure. Concomitant shortening of inspiration and breath duration cause the small tidal volume and increased respiratory rate. Gas exchange is compromised by ventilation/perfusion imbalance, and the ratio of dead space to tidal volume is also increased by rapid, shallow breathing. Reduction in tidal volume minimizes dyspnea, but the small tidal volume is inadequate for gas exchange. Acute treatment of respiratory muscle failure involves respiratory muscle rest through mechanical ventilation and removal of noxious influences (infection, metabolic disarray), whereas chronic treatment involves rebuilding the contractile apparatus by nutritional repletion and training.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Carbon Dioxide / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Pulmonary Gas Exchange
  • Respiration
  • Respiratory Insufficiency / etiology*
  • Respiratory Muscles / physiology*


  • Carbon Dioxide