The body’s muscles and nervous system help control your breathing.
The lungs are like sponges; they cannot expand (get bigger) on their own. Muscles in your chest and abdomen contract (tighten) to create a slight vacuum around your lungs. This causes air to flow in. When you exhale, the muscles relax and the lungs deflate on their own, much like an elastic balloon will deflate if left open to the air.
The breathing muscles include the:
Damage to the nerves in the upper spinal cord can interfere with the movement of your diaphragm and other muscles in your chest, neck, and abdomen. This can happen due to a spinal cord injury, a stroke, or a degenerative disease such as muscular dystrophy. The damage can cause respiratory failure. Ventilator support or oxygen therapy may be necessary to maintain oxygen levels in the body and protect the organs from damage.
Your breathing usually does not require any thought, because it is controlled by the autonomic nervous system, also called the involuntary nervous system.
Your breathing changes depending on how active you are and the condition of the air around you. For example, you need to breathe more often when you do physical activity. At times, you can control your breathing pattern, such as when you hold your breath or sing.
To help adjust your breathing to changing needs, your body has sensors that send signals to the breathing centers in the brain.
In central sleep apnea, the brain temporarily stops sending signals to the muscles needed to breathe. Learn more at our Sleep Apnea Health Topic.