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Tracheal rings are half-rings of cartilage that make up the front portion of the trachea, or throat. The tracheal rings have very narrow spaces between them along the exterior of the trachea and are fused together along the tube’s interior. The back portion of the trachea is formed of smooth, fibrous tissue, giving the entire structure more stability. The rings along the front portion of the tube give the throat flexibility. This allows people to move their heads and to swallow easily. Though tracheal rings are quite strong, separation or damage of these rings is almost always fatal. Malformation of tracheal rings can cause problems breathing and swallowing.
Those who want to understand exactly what these rings are need only very gently touch their throats. Pressing lightly inward and gently moving the fingers up and down should help people feel parallel, horizontal ridges along the entire length of the throat. These are the rings, and most people have from 16 to 20 stacked on top of each other. Martial artists are often taught how to push two fingers or the heels of their hands along these rings to separate them and incapacitate an attacker. This kind of movement should only be used in self-defense, when one’s life is threatened, and practicing these moves should only be done under the supervision of a trained martial artist or sensei.
Study of human anatomy has shown that tracheal rings have a rather interesting shape. They are relatively thin at the ends, where they connect to the back of the throat, and widen toward the center. This means the fronts of the tracheal rings are wider, and somewhat tougher, than the back portions. Most rings are no thicker than the edge of a wooden ice pop stick, though those with 16 rings tend to have thicker rings than those with more.
The first and last tracheal rings are often the thickest and largest. The first tracheal ring connects the throat to the back of the mouth and to the nasal passageways. As such, it has to be large enough to contain the flap between the esophagus and the bronchial tubes. The last tracheal ring is at the bottom of the main bronchial tube, where the tube branches toward either lung. There is typically a triangular juncture there, meaning the last tracheal ring must also be relatively large.
Malformed tracheal rings sometimes occur as birth defects. While some conditions, such as a slight flattening of the fronts of the rings, may not cause health problems, other deformities may. Children born with misshapen rings may require surgery to correct the problem, to prevent problems eating, breathing, or the easy separation of the rings.