What is Pulmonary Physiology?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 20 December 2018
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Pulmonary physiology is the study of lung function. The lungs are critical to the overall well being of an organism, creating a location for gas exchange so that carbon dioxide can be expressed from the body while oxygen is absorbed so that it can diffuse to the tissue through the blood. Medical and veterinary schools usually cover pulmonary physiology in their curricula, and this field is of particular interest to anesthesiologists, pulmonary specialists, and cardiologists, among several others.

Lung function is complex, and involves several interrelated systems. In addition to including the study of the lungs, pulmonary physiology is also interested in heart function, and in the circulatory system, as these physical systems are all involved in the diffusion of oxygen and carbon dioxide. This field of study includes the physical structure of these systems, as well as the chemical reactions and processes which allow them to work.

Pulmonary physiologists are interested in all aspects of lung function, including the involuntary signals sent from the brain to tell the body to breathe, heart abnormalities which can interfere with blood oxygenation, environmental factors which can depress lung function, and the sensitive clusters of cells which can alert the brain to dangerous concentrations of carbon dioxide in the blood.


In medical practice, an understanding of pulmonary physiology is very important for pulmonary specialists who deal with diseases of the lungs and respiratory disorders. Using a variety of methods, a pulmonary specialist can assess pulmonary function and knowledge of pulmonary physiology is important for analyzing a patient's performance on tests. This information can be used to develop a treatment plan to help a patient address a respiratory condition.

The function of the lungs is also of critical concern to anesthesiologists, who introduce carefully formulated mixtures of gases to the lungs during general anesthesia. These gases keep the patient anesthetized and ensure that he or she is getting enough oxygen to remain stable and healthy. After anesthesia, follow up care is needed to monitor the patient's lung function to confirm that the lungs have not been impaired during the surgery.

Physiotherapists are also interested in pulmonary physiology, applying their knowledge to help patients with respiratory disorders. A physiotherapist can assess lung function, help patients develop monitoring regimens to track their lung function, and promote the development of healthier, stronger lungs. They can also use their knowledge to educate patients about topics of interest and to explain how a course of treatment is designed to act upon the lungs.


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