The two lungs are the primary organs of the respiratory system. They sit to the left and right of the heart, within a space called the thoracic cavity. The cavity is protected by the rib cage. A sheet of muscle called the diaphragm serves other parts of the respiratory system, such as the trachea, or windpipe, and bronchi, conduct air to the lungs. While the pleural membranes, and the pleural fluid, allow the lungs to move smoothly within the cavity.
The process of breathing, or respiration, is divided into two distinct phases. The first phase is called inspiration, or inhaling. When the lungs inhale, the diaphragm contracts and pulls downward. At the same time, the muscles between the ribs contract and pull upward. This increases the size of the thoracic cavity and decreases the pressure inside. As a result, air rushes in and fills the lungs.
The second phase is called expiration, or exhaling. When the lungs exhale, the diaphragm relaxes, and the volume of the thoracic cavity decreases, while the pressure within it increases. As a result, the lungs contract and air is forced out.
Review Date 2/2/2023
Updated by: Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Clinical Professor, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David C. Dugdale, MD, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.