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  • Author: Daniel S Schwartz, MD, FACS; Chief Editor: Mary C Mancini, MD, PhD, MMM  more...
Updated: Jul 20, 2016


Tracheomalacia is a process characterized by flaccidity of the supporting tracheal cartilage, widening of the posterior membranous wall, and reduced anterior-posterior airway caliber. These factors cause tracheal collapse, especially during times of increased airflow, such as coughing, crying, or feeding.[1, 2, 3] Tracheomalacia most commonly affects the distal third of the trachea and can be associated with various congenital anomalies, including cardiovascular defects, developmental delay, gastroesophageal reflux (GER), and tracheoesophageal fistula.

Tracheomalacia can be categorized into three groups on the basis of histologic, endoscopic, and clinical presentation, as follows:

  • Type I presents as congenital or intrinsic tracheal abnormalities that can be associated with a tracheoesophageal fistula or esophageal atresia
  • Type II presents as extrinsic defects or anomalies, such as a vascular ring causing undue pressure on the trachea
  • Type III presents as acquired tracheomalacia that occurs with prolonged intubation, chronic tracheal infections, or inflammatory conditions like relapsing polychondritis

Immaturity of the tracheobronchial cartilage is thought to be the cause in type I, whereas degeneration of previously healthy cartilage is thought to produce other types. Inflammatory processes, extrinsic compression from vascular anomalies, or neoplasms may produce degeneration.

For patient education resources, see Bronchoscopy.



The trachea commences at the cricoid cartilage and terminates at the fifth thoracic vertebra. It lengthens and dilates during inspiration and narrows and shortens during expiration. Fifteen to 20 incomplete rings of cartilage prevent it from collapsing.

The trachea is separated from the vertebral column by the esophagus posteriorly.

In the thorax, the jugular venous arch lies anteriorly at the sternum; the brachiocephalic trunk and left common carotid artery lie at the level of the third thoracic vertebra.

The arch of the aorta is to the left and front of the distal trachea just before it bifurcates. On the right of the trachea are pleura, on the left is the aortic arch, and posterolaterally is the left subclavian artery.

The relation of the trachea to the aortic arch makes it liable to compress from aneurysm or from vascular rings, which occur with abnormal arterial development. Therefore, for distal tracheomalacia, whether associated with tracheoesophageal fistula or with vascular anomalies, aortopexy is the procedure of choice.



Tracheomalacia is a structural abnormality of the tracheal cartilage allowing collapse of its walls and airway obstruction. A deficiency and/or malformation of the supporting cartilage exists, with a decrease in the cartilage-to-muscle ratio.

Tracheomalacia most commonly affects the distal third of the trachea. By virtue of its intrinsic flexibility, or compliance, the trachea changes caliber during the respiratory cycle. Tracheal dilatation and lengthening occurs during inspiration; narrowing and shortening occurs during expiration. Accentuation of this cyclic process may cause excessive narrowing of tracheal lumen, thus deforming the entire length or a localized segment. However, it is rarely found in combination with laryngomalacia because of the separate developmental pathways for the trachea and the larynx.

In general, abnormal collapsibility denotes a loss of structural rigidity, such as softening, better expressed as abnormally increased compliance. Any disease process affecting the integrity of the tracheal wall is apt to cause a change in tracheal compliance. The anatomic defect may be trivial or even may escape detection. The functional interference with ventilation may cause expiratory flow obstruction and interfere with clearance of secretions.

Functional impairment is proportional to the length of the involved segment and the degree of stenosis. Furthermore, kinking may occur at the transition between healthy tracheal wall and the indurated segment, as well as in the malacic segment. In diffuse tracheal disease or extensive peritracheal adhesions, the trachea usually distends unevenly during inspiration and collapses during expiration, thus interfering with the tracheal function.



Tracheomalacia can be associated with a variety of congenital anomalies, including cardiovascular defects, developmental delay, esophageal anomalies, and GER. It can be caused by a diffuse process of congenital origin or by a localized abnormality such as a vascular ring, anomalous innominate artery, esophageal atresia,[1] and tracheoesophageal fistula. Internal compression by an endobronchial or tracheostomy tube also may be the culprit. Tracheal cartilage deficiency may be present in 75% of the patients with tracheoesophageal fistula. Tracheomalacia rarely is found in combination with laryngomalacia.

The entire cartilaginous structure of the upper airway is diffusely involved in congenital abnormality, or a localized area of decreased rigidity may be observed secondary to abnormal development of foregut and vasculature in embryonic life. A vascular ring around the trachea does not allow normal development in that area of trachea, and tracheomalacia is observed in the area of impingement.

The cases of acquired tracheomalacia occur with increasing frequency both in children and in adults, and the tracheomalacia often is not recognized clearly. These lesions usually cause focal tracheomalacia and may result from indwelling tracheostomy[4] and endobronchial tube, chest trauma, chronic tracheobronchitis, and inflammation (relapsing polychondritis). They may be secondary to pulmonary resection and tracheal malignancy (cylindroma), and they may be idiopathic.

Primary (congenital) adult tracheomalacia may be classified as follows[2] :

  • Polychondritis
  • Idiopathic (Mounier-Kuhn syndrome)

Secondary (acquired) adult tracheomalacia may be classified as follows[2] :

  • Posttraumatic (postintubation, posttracheotomy, external chest trauma, post-lung transplantation)
  • Emphysema
  • Chronic bronchitis
  • Chronic inflammation (relapsing polychondritis) [5]
  • Chronic external compression of trachea (malignancy, benign tumors, cysts, abscesses, aortic aneurysm)
  • Vascular rings (undiagnosed in childhood)


All types of tracheomalacia are extremely rare; no definite incidence rates are available.[6]

In a total of 512 bronchoscopies, airway malacia was diagnosed in 160 children (94 males) at a median age of 4.0 years (range, 0-17 years).[7] Airway malacia was classified as primary in 136 children and as secondary in 24 children. The incidence of primary airway malacia was estimated to be at least 1 in 2100.



With conservative measures, the symptoms often resolve spontaneously by age 18-24 months.[2]  Diffuse malacia of the airway of the congenital origin improves by age 6-12 months as the structural integrity of the trachea is restored gradually with resolution of the process.

Tracheostomy has been used to stent the airway until natural maturation of cartilage occurs. This often imposes a heavy penalty on the child; therefore, treatment alternatives should be explored.

Aortopexy has proven to be a safe, expedient way to relieve the problem of tracheomalacia in most patients. The success of aortopexy has been reported at about 75% in several small studies. Aortopexy has less long-term morbidity than tracheostomy. While not altering the structural characteristics of the tracheal wall, it widens the anterior-posterior tracheal dimension to maintain a patent lumen. The only treatment failures with aortopexy were patients with diffuse or proximal tracheal involvement.

Contributor Information and Disclosures

Daniel S Schwartz, MD, FACS Medical Director of Thoracic Oncology, St Catherine of Siena Medical Center, Catholic Health Services

Daniel S Schwartz, MD, FACS is a member of the following medical societies: Society of Thoracic Surgeons, Western Thoracic Surgical Association, American College of Chest Physicians, American College of Surgeons

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


Sat Sharma, MD, FRCPC Professor and Head, Division of Pulmonary Medicine, Department of Internal Medicine, University of Manitoba; Site Director, Respiratory Medicine, St Boniface General Hospital

Sat Sharma, MD, FRCPC is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Sleep Medicine, American College of Chest Physicians, American College of Physicians-American Society of Internal Medicine, American Thoracic Society, Canadian Medical Association, Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada, Royal Society of Medicine, Society of Critical Care Medicine, World Medical Association

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Specialty Editor Board

Francisco Talavera, PharmD, PhD Adjunct Assistant Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy; Editor-in-Chief, Medscape Drug Reference

Disclosure: Received salary from Medscape for employment. for: Medscape.

Shreekanth V Karwande, MBBS Chair, Professor, Department of Surgery, Division of Cardiothoracic Surgery, University of Utah School of Medicine and Medical Center

Shreekanth V Karwande, MBBS is a member of the following medical societies: American Association for Thoracic Surgery, American College of Chest Physicians, American College of Surgeons, American Heart Association, Society of Critical Care Medicine, Society of Thoracic Surgeons, Western Thoracic Surgical Association

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Chief Editor

Mary C Mancini, MD, PhD, MMM Professor and Chief of Cardiothoracic Surgery, Department of Surgery, Louisiana State University School of Medicine in Shreveport

Mary C Mancini, MD, PhD, MMM is a member of the following medical societies: American Association for Thoracic Surgery, American College of Surgeons, American Surgical Association, Society of Thoracic Surgeons, Phi Beta Kappa

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Additional Contributors

Richard Thurer, MD B and Donald Carlin Professor of Thoracic Surgical Oncology, University of Miami, Leonard M Miller School of Medicine

Richard Thurer, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Association for Thoracic Surgery, American College of Chest Physicians, American College of Surgeons, American Medical Association, American Thoracic Society, Florida Medical Association, Society of Surgical Oncology, Society of Thoracic Surgeons

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

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Lateral chest radiograph shows excessive tracheal narrowing.
This shows the trachea during inspiration and expiration. Tracheal collapse of more than 50% during expiration is diagnostic of tracheomalacia.
The mechanism of tracheal narrowing is shown here in healthy cases and in cases of tracheomalacia. Adapted from Feist JH, et al. Chest 68:3, Sept, 1975.
Healthy trachea is visualized endoscopically.
A 58-year-old woman with a history of polychondritis presented with inspiratory stridor and respiratory difficulties. The chest radiograph shows narrowing of the distal trachea on bronchoscopy. More than a 50% decrease in tracheal lumen occurred during expiration (see CT images).
The CT scan of a 58-year-old woman with a history of polychondritis who presented with inspiratory stridor and respiratory difficulties shows tracheal narrowing of the distal trachea.
CT image showing tracheal narrowing in a 58-year-old woman with a history of polychondritis who presented with inspiratory stridor and respiratory difficulties.
A 3-dimensional reconstruction of CT scan images confirms the presence of tracheomalacia in a 58-year-old woman with a history of polychondritis who presented with inspiratory stridor and respiratory difficulties.
Patterns of upper airway obstruction are presented here. Patient A has fixed upper airway obstruction. Patient B has variable extrathoracic obstruction, eg, vocal cord dysfunction. Patient C has variable intrathoracic obstruction, eg tracheomalacia.
A flow volume loop shows a pattern of variable extrathoracic obstruction. Truncation of the expiratory limb is present. As the pleural pressure exceeds the airway pressure, airway collapse occurs due to flow limitation during expiration and not during inspiration.
A flow volume loop shows the classic pattern of fixed upper airway obstruction. Truncation of both inspiratory and expiratory limbs is present.
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