Airway Pressure: peak pressure, plateau pressure and lung compliance

Airway pressure

Airway pressure is the pressure that occurs due to the resistance exerted by the respiratory path on the flow of air and the elastic pressure exerted by the lungs and chest walls.

The respiratory path also includes instruments such as an endotracheal tube while using the ventilator.

Pressure applied by the ventilator

We have,

Ventilation pressure = Resistive pressure + Elastic pressure

1) Resistive pressure

Resistive pressure is the pressure that occurs due to the resistance of the respiratory path to the airflow.

Causes of high resistance

  • Secretion
  • Patient biting the tube
  • Mucus plug
  • Kinked Endotracheal tube (ETT)

2) Elastic pressure

Elastic pressure is the pressure that causes the lungs and chest walls to inflate due to which gaseous exchange can take place.

Peak Pressure (Peak Inspiratory Pressure)

PIP is the highest level of ventilation pressure (airway pressure) which causes air to flow to the alveoli for gaseous exchange during inhalation. The value of PIP should never exceed 40 cm H2O in a normal condition. In the case of a ventilator, PIP also includes instruments for air supply such as an endotracheal tube.

Plateau Pressure

It is the airway pressure in the alveoli when the breathing is on hold for positive pressure ventilation. Holding air causes resistive pressure (V’ * R) to become 0 as airflow (V’) becomes 0.  In that case, airway pressure becomes equal to the alveolar pressure (plateau pressure). This pressure is measured by the pressor sensor of the ventilator pausing the inspiration and expiration of the patient.

Normally, the hold time in the ventilator ranges from 0.5 seconds to 1 second. Also, the normal value for plateau pressure should not exceed 35 cm H2O. Else the patient may have to face problems such as barotrauma.


P = V/C + PEEP (or Auto-PEEP)

Where P = plateau pressure

V= tidal volume

C= lung Compliance

PEEP = Positive end-expiratory Pressure ( normally, 5 cm H2O )

Lung compliance

It is the change in volume of lungs per unit change in the trans-pulmonary pressure. Normally, it ranges from 50- 100 ml/ cm H2O.


Lung Compliance (C ) = ΔV/ΔP where

ΔV = change in the volume of lungs

ΔP= change in the trans-pulmonary pressure

From the above equation, we can conclude that lung compliance is directly proportional to the change in volume and inversely proportional to the change in transpulmonary pressure. It is independent of the airway resistance. If the lung compliance is low, more pressure is required to inflate the lungs and vice versa.

Reasons for low compliance

  • Pneumonia
  • Pulmonary edema
  • Pleural effusion
  • Tension pneumothorax, etc.

Relationship between plateau pressure, PIP and compliance

We have, airway pressure = flow * resistance + plateau pressure

= V’ * R + V/C + PEEP

When there is a decrease in compliance the plateau pressure increases. This causes a rise in PIP pressure. Thus the overall airway pressure also increases.

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