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Stress failure of pulmonary capillaries as a limiting factor for maximal exercise

Abstract

The pulmonary blood-gas barrier has a basic physiological dilemma. On the one hand it needs to be extremely thin for efficient gas exchange. On the other hand it also needs to be immensely strong because the stresses on the pulmonary capillary wall become extremely high when the capillary pressure rises on exercise. Maximal hydrostatic pressures in human pulmonary capillaries during exercise are not accurately known but must exceed 30 mmHg. In some animals, for example thoroughbred horses, the capillary pressure rises to about 100 mmHg. These pressures cause stresses in the capillary wall of 5–10 × 104 N·M−2 (50–100 kPa) which approach the breaking strength of collagen. The strength of the capillary wall on the thin side of the blood-gas barrier can be attributed to the type IV collagen of the extracellular matrix. Raising the capillary pressure to similar levels in experimental preparations causes ultrastructural changes in the wall including disruption of the capillary endothelium, alveolar epithelium, and basement membrane in the interstitium. Essentially all thoroughbred racehorses bleed into their lungs during exercise because they break their capillaries, and some elite human athletes apparently do the same. Avoiding stress failure of pulmonary capillaries poses a challenging problem for some species. Stress failure is a hitherto overlooked factor limiting maximal exercise.

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West, J.B., Mathieu-Costello, O. Stress failure of pulmonary capillaries as a limiting factor for maximal exercise. Eur J Appl Physiol 70, 99–108 (1995). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00361536

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00361536

Key words

  • Blood-gas barrier
  • Pulmonary capillary wall
  • Pulmonary capillary pressure
  • Thoroughbred racehorses
  • Collagen