An iron lung is a type of negative pressure ventilator (NPV), a mechanical respirator which encloses most of a person's body, and varies the air pressure in the enclosed space, to stimulate breathing. It assists breathing when muscle control is lost, or the work of breathing exceeds the person's ability. Need for this treatment may result from diseases including polio and botulism and certain poisons (for example, barbiturates, tubocurarine).
The use of iron lungs is largely obsolete in modern medicine, as more modern breathing therapies have been developed, and due to the eradication of polio in most of the world. However, in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic revived some interest in the device as a cheap, readily-producible substitute for positive-pressure ventilators, which were feared to be outnumbered by patients potentially needing temporary artificially assisted respiration.
The iron lung is a large horizontal cylinder designed to stimulate breathing in patients who have lost control of their respiratory muscles. The patient's head is exposed outside the cylinder, while the body is sealed inside. Air pressure inside the cylinder is cycled to facilitate inhalation and exhalation. Devices like the Drinker, Emerson, and Both respirators are examples of iron lungs, which can be manually or mechanically powered. Smaller versions, like the cuirass ventilator and jacket ventilator, enclose only the patient's torso. Breathing in humans occurs through negative pressure, where the rib cage expands and the diaphragm contracts, causing air to flow in and out of the lungs.
The concept of external negative pressure ventilation was introduced by John Mayow in 1670. The first widely used device was the iron lung, developed by Drinker and Shaw in 1928. Initially used for coal gas poisoning treatment, the iron lung gained fame for treating respiratory failure caused by poliomyelitis in the mid-20th century. John Haven Emerson introduced an improved and more affordable version in 1931. The Both respirator, a cheaper and lighter alternative to the Drinker model, was invented in Australia in 1937. British philanthropist William Morris financed the production of the Both-Nuffield respirators, donating them to hospitals throughout Britain and the British Empire. During the polio outbreaks of the 1940s and 1950s, iron lungs filled hospital wards, assisting patients with paralyzed diaphragms in their recovery.
Polio vaccination programs and the development of modern ventilators have nearly eradicated the use of iron lungs in the developed world. Positive pressure ventilation systems, which blow air into the patient's lungs via intubation, have become more common than negative pressure systems like iron lungs. However, negative pressure ventilation is more similar to normal physiological breathing and may be preferable in rare conditions. As of 2008, around 30 patients in the U.S. were still using iron lungs. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the shortage of modern ventilators, some enterprises developed prototypes of new, easily producible versions of the iron lung.
The iron lung is typically a large horizontal cylinder, in which a person is laid, with their head protruding from a hole in the end of the cylinder, so that their full head (down to their voice box) is outside the cylinder, exposed to ambient air, and the rest of their body sealed inside the cylinder, where air pressure is continuously cycled up and down, to stimulate breathing.
To cause the patient to inhale, air is pumped out of the cylinder, causing a slight vacuum, which causes the patient's chest and abdomen to expand (drawing air from outside the cylinder, through the patient's exposed nose or mouth, into their lungs). Then, for the patient to exhale, the air inside the cylinder is compressed slightly (or allowed to equalize to ambient room pressure), causing the patient's chest and abdomen to partially collapse, forcing air out of the lungs, as the patient exhales the breath through their exposed mouth and nose, outside the cylinder.
Examples of the device include the Drinker respirator, the Emerson respirator, and the Both respirator. Iron lungs can be either manually or mechanically powered but normally are powered by an electric motor linked to a flexible pumping diaphragm (commonly opposite the end of the cylinder from the patient's head). Larger \"room-sized\" iron lungs were also developed, allowing for simultaneous ventilation of several patients (each with their heads protruding from sealed openings in the outer wall), with sufficient space inside for a nurse or a respiratory therapist to be inside the sealed room, attending the patients.
Smaller, single-patient versions of the iron lung include the so-called cuirass ventilator (named for the cuirass, a torso-covering body armor). The cuirass ventilator encloses only the patient's torso, or chest and abdomen, but otherwise operates essentially the same as the original, full-sized iron lung. A lightweight variation on the cuirass ventilator is the jacket ventilator or poncho or raincoat ventilator, which uses a flexible, impermeable material (such as plastic or rubber) stretched over a metal or plastic frame over the patient's torso.
Humans, like most mammals, breathe by negative pressure breathing: the rib cage expands and the diaphragm contracts, expanding the chest cavity. This causes the pressure in the chest cavity to decrease, and the lungs expand to fill the space. This, in turn, causes the pressure of the air inside the lungs to decrease (it becomes negative, relative to the atmosphere), and air flows into the lungs from the atmosphere: inhalation. When the diaphragm relaxes, the reverse happens and the person exhales. If a person loses part or all of the ability to control the muscles involved, breathing becomes difficult or impossible.
Boston manufacturer Warren E. Collins began production of the iron lung that year. Although it was initially developed for the treatment of victims of coal gas poisoning, it was most famously used in the mid-20th century for the treatment of respiratory failure caused by poliomyelitis.
The United Kingdom's first iron lung was designed in 1934 by Robert Henderson, an Aberdeen doctor. Henderson had seen a demonstration of the Drinker respirator in the early 1930s and built a device of his own upon his return to Scotland. Four weeks after its construction, the Henderson respirator was used to save the life of a 10-year-old boy from New Deer, Aberdeenshire, who had poliomyelitis. Despite this success, Henderson was reprimanded for secretly using hospital facilities to build the machine.
The South Australia Health Department asked Adelaide brothers Edward and Don Both to create an inexpensive \"iron lung\". Biomedical engineer Edward Both designed and developed a cabinet respirator made of plywood that worked similarly to the Drinker device, with the addition of a bi-valved design which allowed temporary access to the patient's body. Far cheaper to make (only 100) than the Drinker machine, the Both Respirator also weighed less and could be constructed and transported more quickly. Such was the demand for the machines that they were often used by patients within an hour of production.
Visiting London in 1938 during another polio epidemic, Both produced additional respirators there which attracted the attention of William Morris (Lord Nuffield), a British motor manufacturer and philanthropist. Nuffield, intrigued by the design, financed the production of approximately 1700 machines at his car factory in Cowley, and donated them to hospitals throughout all parts of Britain and the British Empire. Soon, the Both-Nuffield respirators were able to be produced by the thousand at about one-thirteenth the cost of the American design. By the early 1950s, there were over 700 Both-Nuffield iron lungs in the United Kingdom, but only 50 Drinker devices.
Rows of iron lungs filled hospital wards at the height of the polio outbreaks of the 1940s and 1950s, helping children, and some adults, with bulbar polio and bulbospinal polio. A polio patient with a paralyzed diaphragm would typically spend two weeks inside an iron lung while recovering.
Polio vaccination programs have virtually eradicated new cases of poliomyelitis in the developed world. Because of this, and the development of modern ventilators, and widespread use of tracheal intubation and tracheotomy, the iron lung has mostly disappeared from modern medicine. In 1959, 1,200 people were using tank respirators in the United States, but by 2004 that number had decreased to just 39.
Positive pressure ventilation systems are now more common than negative pressure systems. Positive pressure ventilators work by blowing air into the patient's lungs via intubation through the airway; they were used for the first time in Blegdams Hospital, Copenhagen, Denmark, during a polio outbreak in 1952. It proved a success and soon[when] superseded the iron lung throughout Europe.
The iron lung now has a marginal place in modern respiratory therapy. Most patients with paralysis of the breathing muscles use modern mechanical ventilators that push air into the airway with positive pressure. These are generally efficacious and have the advantage of not restricting patients' movements or caregivers' ability to examine the patients as significantly as an iron lung does.
Despite the advantages of positive ventilation systems, negative pressure ventilation is a truer approximation of normal physiological breathing and results in a more normal distribution of air in the lungs. It may also be preferable in certain rare conditions, such as central hypoventilation syndrome, in which failure of the medullary respiratory centers at the base of the brain results in patients having no autonomic control of breathing. At least one reported polio patient, Dianne Odell, had a spinal deformity that caused the use of mechanical ventilators to be contraindicated. 59ce067264