Hospital  >  Departments  >  Critical Care Medicine  >  Navigating the ICU - OLD  >  What are all those tubes and machines?  >  What is a breathing machine (mechanical ventilator) and what does it do?

What is a breathing machine (mechanical ventilator) and what does it do?

Breathing machineSome patients need help to breathe. In this situation a “breathing machine” – also known as a mechanical ventilator – is used to assist the function of the lungs.

  • The ventilator blows air into the lungs, helping to maintain proper levels of oxygen in the blood.
  • To use a mechanical ventilator, the medical team needs some form of access to the patient’s lungs.Intubated patient
  • A tube can be inserted into the mouth or nose to reach the lungs. This is called intubation.
  • Or, a tube can be inserted into the windpipe, medically known as the trachea. The procedure to create an opening in the windpipe is called a tracheostomy.

Mechanical ventilators are complex machines that can be adjusted to meet the needs of each patient.

  • Contemporary ventilation equipmentThe most common adjustments will affect how much effort the patient needs to make, and how much oxygen is delivered.
  • Adjustments are made fairly frequently throughout the day to improve the patient’s comfort level and ensure proper oxygen levels in the blood.
  • Respiratory therapists and physicians use protocols, or guidelines, to adjust the controls, and they discuss changes and improvements with the team on a daily basis.

Does it hurt to be intubated?

Tracheal intubationEach person has a different perception and response to pain. One out of every 3 patients will not even remember having the breathing tube in place afterwards.

  • The sicker a person is, the less likely he or she will remember the experience.
  • For those that can remember, the tube is one of the major sources of discomfort.
  • However, the tube is not the only cause of discomfort. Instead, discomfort may result from the use of suctioning to clear the lungs of fluid build-up. Two-thirds of alert patients perceive suctioning as causing moderate to severe pain.

Learn more about how nurses assess and treat pain for patients in the ICU.

Back to Main

Satisfaction survey


This is a family satisfaction with care in the ICU survey.

Take the survey >

Location and contact

Critical Care Medicine

Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre
2075 Bayview Avenue, 
D-wing, 1st floor
room D1 08
Toronto, ON M4N 3M5

Phone: 416-480-4522
Fax: 416-480-4999

For information about patients admitted to Sunnybrook's Intensive Care Units, please contact the unit through the hospital switchboard at 416-480-6100