There is a strong relationship between the functions of the brain and the lungs. The brain depends on the lungs to receive a sufficient supply of oxygen so that it can perform its functions in an efficient manner. Similarly, the lungs receive instructions from the brain in the form of signals carried through the nerves in order to carry out the functions like breathing and the exchange of gases.

Any injury to the brain can affect the signaling mechanisms between these 2 vital organs due to which the risk of developing serious complications can increase.

Hence, there is a need to be aware of the effects of brain injury on the respiratory system and the most effective ways to avoid or treat them.


The impact of traumatic brain injuries and respiratory functions

Traumatic brain injuries are known to cause moderate to severe breathing problems. Damage to the area of the brain that regulatesbreathing can hamper the process of inhalation and exhalation. These complications usually arise due to injuries to the brain stem and motor cortex.

These are the 2 main areas of the brain that help us breathe.

The motor cortex helps to control the movements of the voluntary muscles, which are involved in breathing while the brain stem plays a key role in controlling functions such as breathing, heart rate, and swallowing.

The 3 sections of the brain stem including the midbrain, medulla, and pons are responsible for regulating these activities. Among these 3 parts, it is the medulla that is primarily responsible for regulating breathing. 

Injury to these parts can hamper lung functions due to which the patient may experience an inability to breathe in an efficient or controlled manner.


Types of breathing Problems linked to traumatic brain injuries

There are several forms of respiratory problems that can occur following a traumatic brain injury. These complications can usually occur after sustaining trauma to the medulla.

Here is a brief discussion about the impact of brain injuries on the respiratory system.


Apneustic Breathing

Apneustic breathing is a form of breathing difficulty, which is linked to the inhalation of air. It is usually caused due to damage to the pons.

Patients with apneustic breathing are able to take deep breaths; however, they cannot excel completely. This occurs because the ponsfails to detect how far the pulmonary tissues are expanding. As a result, it cannot determine how much air needs to be removed from the lungs thereby affecting the process of exhalation.

This condition eventually results in the accumulation of a large amount of carbon dioxide in the blood circulation due to which the patient develops symptoms like headaches, dizziness, and loss of consciousness. In severe cases, it may also lead to the development of seizures.

You can attend our Live ceus for respiratory therapist to learn more about the impact of brain injuries on the functions of the respiratory system. 


Agonal Breathing and Labored Breathing

Labored breathing is a common sign associated with injuries to the respiratory centersin the brain.

Labored breathing refers to the difficulty in using the muscles of respiration leading to an inability to let the air out. Labored breathing may also occur due to damage to the intercostal nerves.

Agonal breathing is often confused with labored breathing, although these are 2 different conditions.

Agonal breathing refers to the respiratory distress that occurs due to the inadequate supply of oxygen to the brain. Some common signs of agonal breathinginclude snorting, gasping, moaning, and labored breathing.



Patients, who have suffered severe trauma to the brain may develop apnea, which refers to the complete absence of breathing. It may occur following an injury, which causes compression of the medulla.

Sleep apnea is one of the most common forms of apnea. As the name suggests, sleep apnea occurs when the patient is asleep. Sleep apnea can result in hypoxia and even contribute to further damage to the brain.

This is why; it is important to diagnose sleep apnea at an earlier stage and treat it.


Irregular Respiratory Rate

An injury to the medulla can disrupt the process of respiration due to which the respiratory rate can become irregular.

The damage to the medulla can prevent this part of the brain from detecting the level of carbon dioxide in the body in an efficient manner. As a result, it fails to regulate the process of respiration resulting in an irregular respiratory rate.

The common consequences of damage to the medulla include having slow and infrequent breaths or having quick but shallow breaths.

Both these complications have been known to disrupt the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the body resulting in life-threatening complications.

It is important to be aware of the common respiratory complications related to traumatic brain injury to be able to become a skilled respiratory therapist.


Treatment of respiratory problems following brain trauma

There are several medications that can be used for the treatment of breathing complications linked to traumatic brain injuries. These medications work by regulating the process of breathing and stimulating the activities of the brain stem. In severe cases, the patient may have to be placed on a ventilator until normal breathing is restored.

The patient can also be advised to practice breathing exercises, which can help to strengthen the muscles in the chest and improve their respiratory functions.

Here are some effective breathing exercises recommended for the management of respiratory symptoms occurring as a result of a brain injury.


Deep breathing

Deep breathing exercise involves inhaling a deep breath through the nose. Then, hold the breath for about 5 to 6 seconds and excel slowly through the nose. This exercise can be performed while sitting with the elbows held slightly back.


Two quick breaths

For this exercise, the patient needs to close his mouth and inhale through the nose twice, without letting the breath out in between. The patient needs to hold his breath for 2 seconds, and then,exhale slowly through pursed lips.



Brain injuries are known to affect the respiratory system in various ways. Timely diagnosis of the complications affecting the breathing process is one of the essential factors for improving the outcomes.

Medical professionals can attend our AARC approved ceus to learn more about the diagnosis and treatment of respiratory complications related to brain injuries.