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The primary functions of the respiratory system—to oxygenate blood and eliminate carbon dioxide—require virtual contact between blood and fresh air, which facilitates diffusion of respiratory gases between blood and gas. This process occurs in the lung alveoli, where blood flowing through alveolar wall capillaries is separated from alveolar gas by an extremely thin membrane of flattened endothelial and epithelial cells, across which respiratory gases diffuse and equilibrate. Blood flow through the lung is unidirectional via a continuous vascular path along which venous blood absorbs oxygen from and loses CO2 to inspired gas. The path for airflow, in contrast, reaches a dead end at the alveolar walls; thus the alveolar space must be ventilated tidally, with inflow of fresh gas and outflow of alveolar gas alternating periodically at the respiratory rate (RR). To provide an enormous alveolar surface area (typically 70 m2) for blood-gas diffusion within the modest volume of a thoracic cavity (typically 7 L), nature has distributed both blood flow and ventilation among millions of tiny alveoli through multigenerational branching of both pulmonary arteries and bronchial airways. As a consequence of variations in tube lengths and calibers along these pathways as well as the effects of gravity, tidal pressure fluctuations, and anatomic constraints from the chest wall, the alveoli vary in their relative ventilations and perfusions. Not surprisingly, for the lung to be most efficient in exchanging gas, the fresh gas ventilation of a given alveolus must be matched to its perfusion.

For the respiratory system to succeed in oxygenating blood and eliminating CO2, it must be able to ventilate the lung tidally and thus to freshen alveolar gas; it must provide for perfusion of the individual alveolus in a manner proportional to its ventilation; and it must allow adequate diffusion of respiratory gases between alveolar gas and capillary blood. Furthermore, it must accommodate several-fold increases in the demand for oxygen uptake or CO2 elimination imposed by metabolic needs or acid-base derangement. Given these multiple requirements for normal operation, it is not surprising that many diseases disturb respiratory function. This chapter considers in some detail the physiologic determinants of lung ventilation and perfusion, elucidates how the matching distributions of these processes and rapid gas diffusion allow normal gas exchange, and discusses how common diseases derange these normal functions, thereby impairing gas exchange—or at least increasing the work required by the respiratory muscles or heart to maintain adequate respiratory function.


It is useful to conceptualize the respiratory system as three independently functioning components: the lung, including its airways; the neuromuscular system; and the chest wall, which includes everything that is not lung or active neuromuscular system. Accordingly, the mass of the respiratory muscles is part of the chest wall, while the force these muscles generate is part of the neuromuscular system; the abdomen (especially an obese abdomen) and the heart (especially an enlarged ...

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