What replaced the iron lung?

In this brief guide, we’ll address the query: “What replaced the iron lung?” Also, we’ll explore what an iron lung is, what it was intended for, why its usage declined, and what options there are for oxygenating an immobilized patient. 

What replaced the iron lung? 

Iron lungs were replaced by ventilators and other, more sophisticated means of providing oxygenation to an immobilized patient’s body and organs. 

Iron lungs, while at one point essential for the survival of many patients with poliomyelitis, eventually became phased out or obsolete, due to the decrease in polio cases and the advances in medical engineering that developed other means to provide respiratory assistance. 

In actuality, iron lungs may remain functional, though these have been reported in a few cases, when other more modern alternatives may not have been as feasible. 

What is an iron lung? 

An iron lung alludes to a device that was constructed out of metal. Equipped with a chamber in which a person (save for the head) could be placed, and provided with respiratory assistance. 

Beneath, it has a pump that would push air in and out, generating pressure with the help of a membrane at the far end (near the patient’s feet). 

The change in air pressure within the chamber would also reflect on the patient’s body, particularly in the torso, and this would help stimulate the natural motion of a person’s body when breathing. 

Iron lungs were first used in the medical field in the late 1920s when they were used as a means to help children infected with polio regain some of their respiratory function. 

What were iron lungs built for? 

Iron lungs were designed and built to provide respiratory assistance. Their design was first conceived by an English scientist in the 1600s, but it wasn’t until the early nineteenth century that it was formally described as a medical device.

In its earlier stages, the first units were made for treating respiratory troubles in miners exposed to noxious gasses, though it was discovered to be a useful tool when treating respiratory insufficiency caused by poliomyelitis. 

From there on, many designs and variations were improved upon, and due to climbing polio infection rates, iron lungs became life-long necessities for some patients.  

Why did the use of iron lungs decline?

The use of iron lungs declined mostly, due to the advent of a poliomyelitis vaccine. Polio was practically eradicated, and with lowering infection rates, the demand for iron lungs was greatly diminished. 

However, patients with severe polio injuries maintained their need for iron lungs, and repair and maintenance were not so easily discontinued as manufacturing. 

Secondly, the development of more efficient respiratory devices also made iron lungs obsolete to a certain degree. Respirators and ECMO devices provide more effective and even targeted oxygenation that may be less cumbersome for patients and healthcare providers. 

What options are there for oxygenating an immobilized patient? 

Oxygenating an immobilized patient can be done by providing supplementary oxygen (via masks and condensers), intubating and pumping air in and out of the lungs with a ventilator, and by removing blood from the body and subjecting it to a gas exchange outside of the body (ECMO). 

The course of treatment to address respiratory failure or insufficiency will be determined by the physician, such as a pneumologist or an internal medicine specialist. 

Depending on the cause of the respiratory failure/insufficiency, and the likelihood of improvement, a doctor will determine for how long the treatment should be administered. 

In cases where the ailment is infectious, the patient may have to be admitted to an Intensive Care Unit (ICU) and from there, specialists will determine the most feasible option to assist in recovery. 

Respirators are commonly used to supply oxygen by pumping air in and out of a person’s compromised lungs. During the Coronavirus pandemic, this option was most commonly used in cases where a patient was unable to breathe on his or her own. 

In more severe cases, where a respirator is not supplementing pulmonary (lung) insufficiency, a doctor may decide to use a more drastic measure, such as an ECMO machine. 

ECMO is an acronym for Extra Corporeal Membrane Oxygenation. As its name states, it consists in drawing out the blood from a person’s body and replacing carbon dioxide with oxygen, the latter is done with a membrane. 

This process is delicate and requires specialists to decide what body parts are the priority for being pumped with oxygenated blood. 

In milder cases, where a patient’s respiratory muscles are not compromised, a doctor may prescribe supplementary oxygen, which is supplied with a mask. In this case, remaining in a hospital may not be necessary, and patients may be eligible to return to their homes while they complete their treatment. 

Chronic or lifelong conditions may require home care, in addition to the necessary equipment such as oxygen tanks and respirators. A patient’s exact needs will depend on his or her diagnosis, and the available resources. 


In this brief guide, we’ve addressed the query: “What replaced the iron lung?” Also, we’ve explored what an iron lung is, what it was intended for, why its usage declined, and what options there are for oxygenating an immobilized patient. 








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