Negative vs. Positive Pressure Ventilation Illustration

Negative vs. Positive Pressure Ventilation (2024)

by | Updated: Apr 28, 2024

Mechanical ventilation is a medical procedure used to assist or replace spontaneous breathing and can be divided into two main categories: positive pressure ventilation and negative pressure ventilation.

Both methods provide breathing support, yet their mechanisms of action differ fundamentally, each with its unique implications and applications.

This article aims to dissect the intricate dynamics between these two ventilation methods.

We will delve into the complex mechanisms, underlying principles, and clinical implications, offering a comprehensive comparison between positive and negative pressure ventilation.

What is the Difference Between Positive and Negative Pressure Ventilation?

Positive pressure ventilation involves forcing air into the lungs under pressure during inspiration, commonly used in modern mechanical ventilators. Negative pressure ventilation, less commonly used, creates a sub-atmospheric pressure around the chest, drawing air into the lungs. The difference lies in the mechanism used to augment or replace a patient’s spontaneous breathing.

Negative vs. Positive Pressure Ventilation Illustration Vector

Negative Pressure Ventilation

Negative pressure ventilation is a method of mechanical ventilation in which the patient’s body is enclosed within an airtight chamber, and the pressure around the chest is reduced to create a vacuum.

This drop in pressure leads to the expansion of the chest cavity, which, in turn, reduces the pressure inside the lungs and causes air to rush in, mimicking the natural process of inhalation.


  1. Iron Lung: The traditional and the most comprehensive form of negative pressure ventilation, this device encloses the whole body except the head. It was primarily used during the polio epidemics and is rarely seen in modern clinical practice.
  2. Chest Cuirass: A shell-type device that fits over the chest and abdomen to create a vacuum that causes the chest to expand and draw in air. It is more comfortable and practical than the iron lung, but its use is limited to patients who can maintain a tight seal around the cuirass.

Historically, negative pressure ventilators, such as the “iron lung” used during the polio epidemics of the 20th century, enclosed the entire body except for the head.

Modern devices, such as chest cuirasses or body ventilators, can cover just the chest or abdominal area.


Negative pressure ventilation is typically indicated for patients with neuromuscular diseases or spinal cord injuries, where it can augment the patient’s spontaneous respiratory effort.

  • Neuromuscular Diseases: Diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Guillain-Barré syndrome, and muscular dystrophies, which can impair the respiratory muscles, may warrant the use of negative pressure ventilation.
  • Spinal Cord Injuries: Patients with spinal cord injuries, particularly high cervical spinal cord injuries, often have impaired diaphragmatic function and may benefit from negative pressure ventilation.
  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD): Some COPD patients may use negative pressure ventilation during the night to reduce daytime hypercapnia and improve symptom control.

Note: While negative pressure ventilation can be a valuable tool in these situations, its use should be carefully considered based on individual patient factors, including comfort, the ability to maintain a tight seal (for cuirass), and other health considerations.

Advantages and Disadvantages

One of the significant advantages of negative pressure ventilation is that it enables spontaneous breathing and more normal physiological responses.

It maintains the natural pattern of intra-thoracic pressure changes, promoting better circulation and venous return.

However, it’s not without some disadvantages.

Negative pressure ventilation can be less effective in patients with stiff or non-compliant lungs, such as those with acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), due to the increased work of breathing.

It can also be uncomfortable or impractical for long-term management of chronic respiratory failure outside of the hospital setting.

Despite its limitations, negative pressure ventilation serves as an essential part of the history of respiratory care and continues to offer unique advantages in certain clinical situations.

Understanding its role, benefits, and drawbacks can provide invaluable insights into the broader scope of mechanical ventilation strategies.

Positive Pressure Ventilation

Positive pressure ventilation is the most common form of mechanical ventilation utilized in contemporary medical practice.

This technique operates by delivering pressurized gas to the airways, inflating the lungs, and aiding or replacing spontaneous respiration.

The application of positive pressure causes the alveoli to expand, facilitating gas exchange, oxygen absorption, and carbon dioxide removal.

This method of ventilation can be administered invasively, through an endotracheal or tracheostomy tube, or noninvasively via a mask or nasal prongs.


  1. Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP): A form of noninvasive ventilation where a single level of positive pressure is supplied continuously to help keep the airways open, commonly used in the treatment of obstructive sleep apnea.
  2. BiLevel Positive Airway Pressure (BiPAP): Another form of noninvasive ventilation, which provides two levels of pressure: a higher pressure during inspiration and a lower pressure during expiration, useful for conditions like COPD and sleep apnea.
  3. Invasive Mechanical Ventilation: Delivers positive pressure breaths via an endotracheal tube or tracheostomy. This can be further classified into volume control or pressure control, depending on the primary parameter set to control ventilation.
  4. High-Frequency Oscillatory Ventilation (HFOV): Delivers very small volumes at high frequencies (greater than 150 breaths per minute) via positive pressure. It’s mainly used in neonates and children with particular lung conditions.


Positive pressure ventilation is indicated in a variety of clinical conditions characterized by respiratory failure or insufficiency.

  • Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS): This severe lung condition often necessitates invasive mechanical ventilation to maintain adequate oxygenation.
  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD): In acute exacerbations of COPD or in severe stable cases, noninvasive positive pressure ventilation like BiPAP can be used to improve gas exchange.
  • Obstructive Sleep Apnea: CPAP is the first-line treatment for this condition, as it prevents airway collapse during sleep.
  • General Anesthesia: Positive pressure ventilation is used to maintain ventilation and oxygenation during surgeries under general anesthesia.
  • Respiratory Failure: This can be due to many causes, including pneumonia, pulmonary edema, trauma, and neuromuscular diseases. Positive pressure ventilation, invasive or noninvasive, helps support or replace the function of respiratory muscles.

As always, the choice of ventilation type depends on the underlying disease process, patient comfort, and individual clinical circumstances.

Its application, however, requires careful monitoring as it can impact other bodily systems, especially the cardiovascular system, due to changes in intrathoracic pressure.

The modality of positive pressure ventilation offers a powerful tool in the hands of healthcare professionals.

A comprehensive understanding of its principles, its versatile applications, and the potential challenges it presents is crucial in optimizing patient care in an array of clinical scenarios.

Advantages and Disadvantages

Positive pressure ventilation offers several advantages, which have led to its widespread use in clinical practice.

Primarily, it provides control over the parameters of respiration, including rate, volume, and pressure, allowing healthcare professionals to tailor the ventilatory support to the specific needs of the patient.

It can be administered both invasively and noninvasively, providing flexibility based on the severity of the patient’s condition and their ability to breathe spontaneously.

Moreover, positive pressure ventilation, especially in its noninvasive form, such as CPAP or BiPAP, can offer immediate relief of symptoms in conditions like sleep apnea or acute exacerbations of COPD, thereby improving patient comfort and quality of life.

However, positive pressure ventilation is not without some disadvantages.

It can lead to complications such as barotrauma, including pneumothorax, resulting from the high pressures used to ventilate the lungs.

In some cases, prolonged use of invasive positive-pressure ventilation can lead to ventilator-associated pneumonia.

Hemodynamic compromise, characterized by decreased venous return and thus lower cardiac output, can also occur due to increased intrathoracic pressure.

Lastly, patient comfort is a concern, especially with noninvasive ventilation, as masks can cause discomfort, skin breakdown, and anxiety in some patients.

Thus, while positive pressure ventilation serves as a powerful tool in the management of respiratory failure, careful consideration and vigilant monitoring of its potential adverse effects are crucial in optimizing patient outcomes.

FAQs About Negative and Positive Pressure Ventilation

What is the Difference Between Negative Pressure and Positive Pressure?

Negative and positive pressure refer to the methods used to facilitate airflow into the lungs during mechanical ventilation.

Negative pressure ventilation works by decreasing pressure around the chest, causing air to be drawn into the lungs, much like natural breathing.

On the other hand, positive pressure ventilation works by forcing air directly into the lungs under pressure during inhalation, which is contrary to the natural process of breathing.

How Does a Negative Pressure Ventilator Work?

A negative pressure ventilator functions by creating a sub-atmospheric pressure environment around the patient’s chest or body.

This lower pressure allows the chest cavity to expand, which in turn decreases the pressure within the lungs.

The resulting pressure gradient between the atmosphere and the lungs causes air to flow into the lungs, mimicking the natural process of inhalation.

Why is Negative Pressure Ventilation Used Less Often?

Negative pressure ventilation is used less frequently due to several reasons. First, it tends to be less effective in patients with stiff or non-compliant lungs, as it requires the patient to exert more effort to breathe.

Second, it may be uncomfortable for some patients, as it often involves an enclosure around the chest or body.

Third, technological advancements in positive pressure ventilation, like the ability to control various parameters and the ease of use in different clinical settings, have made it the preferred choice in most modern medical practices.

What are the Complications of Negative Pressure Ventilation?

Negative pressure ventilation, while beneficial in certain scenarios, can have potential complications.

These can include skin breakdown or pressure sores due to prolonged enclosure use, discomfort from the restrictive nature of the device, and respiratory muscle fatigue in patients with poor lung compliance.

Furthermore, in emergencies, removing a patient from a negative pressure device can be time-consuming, potentially delaying critical interventions.

Why is Negative Pressure Ventilation Not Used Anymore?

Negative pressure ventilation is not as widely used today due to advancements in positive pressure ventilation technologies that offer more control over the patient’s respiratory parameters.

Negative pressure devices are also less practical and comfortable for long-term management of patients, particularly those with severe lung disease who require high levels of ventilatory support.

Moreover, positive pressure ventilation can be administered both invasively and non-invasively, offering flexibility based on the patient’s condition and comfort.

What are the Main Disadvantages of Negative Pressure Ventilation?

The main disadvantages of negative pressure ventilation include potential discomfort and skin breakdown from the device, the need for a seal that can be difficult to maintain, especially in pediatric patients or those with abnormal body habitus, and the relatively lower efficacy in patients with poor lung compliance.

Also, in comparison to positive pressure ventilation, negative pressure ventilation is less practical for long-term use, especially outside of a hospital setting.

Is Positive or Negative Pressure Ventilation Better?

Neither positive nor negative pressure ventilation can be universally considered ‘better,’ as the choice between the two depends on the patient’s specific condition, comfort, and clinical context.

Positive pressure ventilation has largely become the standard due to its versatility, ability to control various respiratory parameters, and applicability to a broad range of respiratory conditions.

However, in certain scenarios, such as neuromuscular diseases or for patients who can participate in spontaneous breathing, negative pressure ventilation can provide unique benefits.

Therefore, the choice between these two methods of ventilation should be individualized, based on the patient’s needs and the clinical situation.

Final Thoughts

Both positive and negative pressure ventilation serve critical roles in the management of respiratory failure.

Although positive pressure ventilation is more commonly used today due to its versatility and ability to control specific respiratory parameters, negative pressure ventilation continues to offer unique benefits in certain clinical contexts.

The choice between these methods relies on careful consideration of a patient’s specific needs, disease process, comfort, and the associated advantages and disadvantages.

As we navigate the complexities of respiratory care, an in-depth understanding of these ventilation strategies will continue to be indispensable in delivering effective patient care.

John Landry, BS, RRT

Written by:

John Landry, BS, RRT

John Landry is a registered respiratory therapist from Memphis, TN, and has a bachelor's degree in kinesiology. He enjoys using evidence-based research to help others breathe easier and live a healthier life.


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