Adaptation of lung, chest wall, and respiratory muscles during pregnancy: preparing for birth

Antonella LoMauro, Andrea Aliverti, Peter Frykholm, Daniela Alberico, Nicola Persico, Giulia Boschetti, Michela DeBellis, Federica Briganti, Mario Nosotti, Ilaria Righi

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


A plethora of physiological and biochemical changes occur during normal pregnancy. The changes in the respiratory system have not been as well elucidated, in part because radioimaging is usually avoided during pregnancy. We aimed to use several noninvasive methods to characterize the adaptation of the respiratory system during the full course of pregnancy in preparation for childbirth. Eighteen otherwise healthy women (32.3 ± 2.8 yr) were recruited during early pregnancy. Spirometry, optoelectronic plethysmography, and ultrasonography were used to study changes in chest wall geometry, breathing pattern, lung and thoraco-abdominal volume variations, and diaphragmatic thickness in the first, second, and third trimesters. A group of nonpregnant women were used as control subjects. During the course of pregnancy, we observed a reorganization of rib cage geometry, in shape but not in volume. Despite the growing uterus, there was no lung restriction (forced vital capacity: 101 ± 15% predicted), but we did observe reduced rib cage expansion. Breathing frequency and diaphragmatic contribution to tidal volume and inspiratory capacity increased. Diaphragm thickness was maintained (1st trimester: 2.7 ± 0.8 mm, 3rd trimester: 2.5 ± 0.9 mm; P = 0.187), possibly indicating a conditioning effect to compensate for the effects of the growing uterus. We conclude that pregnancy preserved lung volumes, abdominal muscles, and the diaphragm at the expense of rib cage muscles.NEW & NOTEWORTHY Noninvasive analysis of the kinematics of the chest wall and the diaphragm during resting conditions in pregnant women revealed significant changes in the pattern of thoracoabdominal breathing across the trimesters. That is, concomitant with the progressive changes of chest wall shape, the diaphragm increased its contribution to both spontaneous and maximal breathing, maintaining its thickness despite its lengthening due to the growing uterus. These results suggest that during pregnancy the diaphragm is conditioned to optimize its active role provided during parturition.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1640-1650
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of applied physiology (Bethesda, Md. : 1985)
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - Dec 1 2019


  • diaphragm
  • optoelectronic plethysmography
  • position
  • pregnancy
  • ultrasound

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Physiology
  • Physiology (medical)


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