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Br J Anaesth. 2006 Apr;96(4):510-5. Epub 2006 Feb 20.

Respiratory muscle activity and respiratory obstruction after abdominal surgery.

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University Department of Anaesthesia, Critical Care and Pain Medicine Royal Infirmary, Edinburgh EH16 4SA, UK.



Respiratory movements in patients after abdominal surgery are frequently abnormal, with associated disturbances in the pattern of inspiratory pressure generation. The reasons for these abnormalities are not clear and have been attributed to impaired action of the diaphragm. However, an alternative is that partial airway obstruction could trigger reflex activation of the inspiratory ribcage muscles, which would cause a similar pattern of inspiratory pressure change. Direct measurement of electrical activity can indicate if reflex activation of inspiratory muscles occurs when partial airway obstruction is present.


In an open study, we implanted electrodes to measure the EMG of scalene, intercostal and external oblique abdominal muscles in patients after lower abdominal surgery. Analgesia was with morphine i.v. by patient control. We used nasal cannulae to measure nasal airflow and compared EMG activity when airway obstruction was present with activity when breathing was not obstructed.


The pattern of activity of the different muscles was distinct. Intercostal activity reached a maximum during inspiration, before the scalene muscles, whereas scalene activity increased in phase with increasing lung volume. Abdominal muscle activity commenced when expiratory flow had ceased and continued until the next inspiration. In all three muscle groups, partial airway obstruction did not alter muscle activity.


Partial airway obstruction does not activate inspiratory ribcage muscles, in patients receiving morphine for postoperative analgesia after lower abdominal surgery. Changes in respiratory pressures and abnormalities of chest wall movement described in previous studies cannot be attributed to reflex responses and probably result from increased airway resistance and abdominal muscle action.

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