Function of the Diaphragm in Health and Disease

- Updated on August 3, 2021

Poole DC, Sexton WL, Farkas GA, Powers SK, Reid MB, Diaphragm structure and function in health and disease, Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1997 Jun;29(6):738-54.
Department of Kinesiology, Kansas State University Manhattan 66506, USA.
The diaphragm is the primary muscle of inspiration, and as such uncompromised function is essential to support the ventilatory and gas exchange demands associated with physical activity. The normal healthy diaphragm may fatigue during intense exercise, and diaphragm function is compromised with aging and obesity. However, more insidiously, respiratory diseases such as emphysema mechanically disadvantage the diaphragm, sometimes leading to muscle failure and death. Based on metabolic considerations, recent evidence suggests that specific regions of the diaphragm may be or may become more susceptible to failure than others. This paper reviews the regional differences in mechanical and metabolic activity within the diaphragm and how such heterogeneities might influence diaphragm function in health and disease. Our objective is to address five principal areas: 1) Regional diaphragm structure and mechanics (GAF). 2) Regional differences in blood flow within the diaphragm (WLS). 3) Structural and functional interrelationships within the diaphragm microcirculation (DCP). 4) Nitric oxide and its vasoactive and contractile influences within the diaphragm (MBR). 5) Metabolic and contractile protein plasticity in the diaphragm (SKP). These topics have been incorporated into three discrete sections: Functional Anatomy and Morphology, Physiology, and Plasticity in Health and Disease. Where pertinent, limitations in our understanding of diaphragm function are addressed along with potential avenues for future research.

Darnley GM, Gray AC, McClure SJ, Neary P, Petrie M, McMurray JJ, MacFarlane NG, Effects of resistive breathing on exercise capacity and diaphragm function in patients with ischaemic heart disease, Eur J Heart Fail. 1999 Aug;1(3):297-300.
Institute of Biomedical and Life Sciences, Glasgow University, Scotland, UK.
BACKGROUND: Muscle weakness has been suggested to result from the deconditioning that accompanies decreased activity levels in chronic cardiopulmonary diseases. The benefits of standard exercise programs on exercise capacity and muscular strength in disease and health are well documented and exercise capacity is a significant predictor of survival in patients with chronic heart failure (CHF). Selective respiratory muscle training has been shown to improve exercise tolerance in CHF and such observations have been cited to support the suggestion that respiratory muscle weakness contributes to a reduced exercise capacity (despite biopsies showing the metabolic profile of a well trained muscle).
AIMS: This study aimed to determine the effects of selective inspiratory muscle training on patients with chronic coronary artery disease to establish if an improved exercise capacity can be obtained in patients that are not limited in their daily activities.
METHODS: Nine male patients performed three exercise tests (with respiratory and diaphragm function assessed before the third test) then undertook a 4-week program of inspiratory muscle training. Exercise tolerance, respiratory and diaphragmatic function were re-assessed after training.
RESULTS: Exercise capacity improved from 812+/-42 to 864+/-49 s, P<0.05, and velocity of diaphragm shortening increased (during quiet breathing from 12.8+/-1.6 to 19.4+/-1.1 mm s(-1), P<0.005, and sniffing from 71.9+/-9.4 to 110.0+/-12.3 mm s(-1), P<0.005). In addition, five from nine patients were stopped by breathlessness before training; whereas only one patient was stopped by breathlessness after training.
CONCLUSION: The major findings in this study were that a non-intensive 4-week training programmed of resistive breathing in patients with chronic coronary artery disease led to an increase in exercise capacity and a decrease in dyspnea when assessed by symptom limited exercise testing. These changes were associated with significant increases in the velocity of diaphragmatic excursions during quiet breathing and sniffing. Patients that exhibited small diaphragmatic excursions during quiet breathing were most likely to improve their exercise capacity after the training programmed. However, the inspiratory muscle-training programmed was not associated with any significant changes in respiratory mechanics when peak flow rate, forced expiratory volume and forced vital capacity were measured. The resistive breathing programmed used here resulted in a significant increase in the velocity of diaphragm movement during quiet breathing and sniffing. In other skeletal muscles, speed of contraction can be determined by the relative proportion of fiber types and muscle length (Jones, Round, Skeletal Muscle in Health and Disease. Manchester: University Press, 1990). The intensity of the training programmed used here, however, is unlikely to significantly alter muscle morphology or biochemistry. Short-term training studies have shown that there can be increases in strength and velocity of shortening that do not relate to changes in muscle biochemistry or morphology. These changes are attributed to the neural adaptations that occur early in training (Northridge et al., Br. Heart J. 1990; 64: 313-316). Independent of the mechanisms involved, this small, uncontrolled study suggests that inspiratory muscle training may improve exercise capacity, diaphragm function and symptoms of breathlessness in patients with chronic coronary artery disease even in the absence of heart failure.