How the Lungs Work - How Your Body Controls Breathing - How Your Body Controls Breathing

The body’s muscles and nervous system help control your breathing.

The muscles used for 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:

  • Diaphragm, which is a dome-shaped muscle below your lungs. It separates the chest cavity from the abdominal cavity. The diaphragm is the main muscle used for breathing.
  • The muscles between your ribs, called intercostal muscles, play a role in breathing during physical activity.
  • Abdominal muscles help you breathe out when you are breathing fast, such as during physical activity.
  • Muscles of the face, mouth, and pharynx. The pharynx is the part of the throat right behind the mouth. These muscles control the lips, tongue, soft palate, and other structures to help with breathing. Problems with these muscles can narrow the airway, make it more difficult to breathe, and contribute to sleep apnea.
  • Muscles in the neck and collarbone area help you breathe in.
Cross-section of lungs to show the diaphragm.
Cross-section of lungs to show the diaphragm. The main image shows the location of the lungs, pleura, and diaphragm.

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.

The nervous system

Your breathing usually does not require any thought, because it is controlled by the autonomic nervous system, also called the involuntary nervous system.

  • The parasympathetic system slows your breathing rate. It causes your bronchial tubes to narrow and the pulmonary blood vessels to widen.
  • The sympathetic system increases your breathing rate. It makes your bronchial tubes widen and the pulmonary blood vessels narrow.

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.

  • Sensors in the airways detect lung irritants. The sensors can trigger sneezing or coughing. In people who have asthma, the sensors may cause the muscles around the airways in the lungs to contract. This makes the airways smaller.
  • Sensors in the brain and near blood vessels detect carbon dioxide and oxygen levels in your blood.
  • Sensors in your joints and muscles detect the movement of your arms or legs. These sensors may play a role in increasing your breathing rate when you are physically active.

In central sleep apnea, the brain temporarily stops sending signals to the muscles needed to breathe. Learn more at our Sleep Apnea Health Topic.