Our lungs, nestled snugly within our ribcage, surround the heart like a bubble wrap hug.
The lung’s structure is is similar to that of an upside down tree. It has a main trunk (the trachea), two thick branches (the right and left bronchi), and progressively smaller branches (the bronchioles), leading to many leaves…er alveoli. Just as leaves are where photosynthesis takes place, it is at the level of the alveoli where we make the critical trade of C02 for oxygen. The combined surface area of all the alveoli in a set of lungs is about the size of a badminton court!
We have a right and a left lung. The right lung is divided into three lobes (one per bronchiole) and the left divided into two. Surrounding the right and left lungs is a double-layered membrane called the pleura. The inner pleural layer surrounds the individual lobes, and the outer layer surrounds the entire lung. The two layers must be able to glide freely by one other to allow the lungs to expand well inside the ribcage and around the heart.
Air flows into the lungs based on pressure changes created during breathing. The expansion of our ribcage and the descending action of the diaphragm during inhalation creates negative pressure within the lungs, which draws air in. On exhalation, the diaphragm relaxes and ascends and the ribcage retracts, creating higher pressure in the lungs, letting the air out. Our exhale is generally a passive process, though can involve gentle contraction of the deep abdominal and pelvic floor muscles during active postures or if we’re trying to push as much air out as possible. In some pathological conditions, such as during an asthma attack or in the case of chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD), exhalation can take effort.
The best video I’ve seen of real human lungs (of a cadaver) “breathing” is on Gil Hedley’s site, here (scroll down to the video “Exquisite lungs breathing”). If you’re a bit squeamish at the thought of a cadaver, perhaps don’t click that link.
Anyhow, just like the rest of our parts, lungs love movement! Why?
- Bending, reaching, turning, and twisting moves the ribcage, which in turn “massages” the lungs. This will encourage the flow of the important fluids, like blood and lymph, to and from all corners of lungs. If we don’t move much, there will be stagnancy of these fluids. Swampy lungs? No thanks.
- Ribs that can AND DO move smoothly, like a well cared for slinky, distribute forces evenly around the lungs. A kink in the slinky = less smooth movement and uneven pressures on the lung. More pressure over one area of the lung will make it more difficult for air to enter there, as air always travel the path of least resistance.
- Deep breathing. During a regular breath, as the lungs expand with air there is gliding of each lung within its pleura case. On a deep breath, there is ALSO gliding occurring BETWEEN the individual lobes of the lungs. This means that regularly taking deep breaths- such as during exercise, physical labour, play, meditation, and even yawning helps ensure the lobes remain free to glide relative to one another. Those “deep knots” between the shoulder blades that you juust can’t seem to reach could in fact be stickiness between the lobes of the lungs- a possibility anyways! Regular deep breathing will be of benefit.
- The nerves that innervate the lungs come off the spinal cord at the level of the neck and upper back. This means that by moving these areas regularly (think reaching, pulling, pushing, arm swinging) we can reduce stiffness here and thus support lung function.
- Last but not least, when the body has control of the position of the ribcage relative to the pelvis, which we can practice, the diaphragm and pelvic floor muscles have the best chance at maintaining optimal pressure dynamics of the trunk. Balanced trunk pressure helps deep breaths feel easy. If breathing deeply feels difficult, sub-optimal pressure dynamics in the trunk may be a cause. Hernia’s, heartburn, pelvic floor dysfunction, and bloating can signify a disharmony of trunk pressures. When you next do a plank, ask yourself -can I comfortably take a deep inhale and exhale? If yes, you’re probably in great form.
Moral of the story? Move more, move more ways, bring awareness to your breath, and learn to have control of your trunk.
How is the mobility of my lungs relevant to my health concern?
Perhaps in more ways than you think! Here’s a few:
A) Lung mobility relates to the structures around them- heart, esophagus, ribs, back, shoulders, neck. Good lung mobility will support the health of these surrounding structures, and vice versa.
B) Lung mobility issues may relate to pressure-related concerns, such as bloating or pressure headaches. This is because, since the body functions as a whole, pressure changes within one cavity will effect pressures in the other cavities. The adaptability of the thoracic cavity to changes in pressure plays a role in determining the adaptability of the body’s overall pressure equilibrium.
C) Perhaps most obviously, mobile lungs supports good air exchange, important for well oxygenated cells and clearance of metabolic waste.