Kuhhhhhhhhhh. Chhhhhhhhhhhhh. Kuhhhhhhhhhhhh. Chhhhhhhhhhhh. OK, I’ll stop now. But there is arguably no man, woman, or child in cinematic history with a more recognizable breathing pattern than Darth Vader. That infamous asthmatic wheeze was, of course, produced by the Sith lord’s armor, but his symptoms are actually characteristic of a real breathing condition, one likely caused by exposure to the volcanic atmosphere on Mustafar after his duel with Obi-Wan Kenobi.
To find out exactly what ailed him, doctors Ronni R. Plovsing and Ronan M. G. Berg went on a bit of an original-trilogy bender, stopping to analyze Vader’s breathing frequencies along the way. The results, which are published in the journal Anesthesiology, might seem pointless to the non-Star Wars fan among us, but the team explains that using case studies from pop-culture has proven to be a useful teaching tool in the past. If they could manage to decipher Vader’s disease, they could use him as a hypothetical patient for their students.
At his calmest (when resting or, you know, executing employees), Vader breathed between 13 and 16 times per minute. This is relatively low for an adult man, but nothing to write home about on its own. The “aha!” moment came later, when Berg and Plovsing realized just how intensely “the chosen one’s” breathing was influenced by stressors. “For example,” they write, “when the plans to the Death Star are missing in Episode IV, his respiratory frequency increases to 25 breaths per minute.”
The team also notes that Vader’s armor supports his lungs during both inhalation (breathing in), and expiration (breathing out), and – as we know from the daddy death scene in Return of the Jedi – it appears to maintain some kind of pressure gradient within. This suggests that the E-3778Q-1 mask houses a bilevel positive airway pressure (BPAP) system.
BPAP systems give labored breathers a boost by creating a pressure gradient that compliments their natural respiratory cycle, essentially, doing some of the work for them. Here on Earth, the machines are used to help patients with chronic respiratory failure (CRF) and obstructive pulmonary disease – both of which could have been caused by the severe lung burning and exposure to volcanic gas we know Vader encountered.
But if Mustafar’s atmosphere left Ani with a lifelong condition, why was Obi-Wan unaffected? The team chalks this up to “pyroclastic density currents,” or channels of gas and heated particles that ebb and flow around volcanic landscapes. The currents can reach speeds over 600 miles per hour, and often burn at 1000 degrees Celsius (1,832 degrees F) – nearly twice the temperature required to melt aluminum ore. Of course, they’re not always that extreme – and if he was caught in a mild current before being rescued from the Outer Rim, Vader would have sustained severe respiratory damage.
His condition likely involves inflammation of the alveoli (tiny sacs within our lungs that allow oxygen and carbon dioxide to move between the lungs and bloodstream), fibrosis (lung scarring), and deformities in the chest cavity. The treatment, continuous oxygen and positive airway pressure, would support his breathing and prevent airway collapse as he moved about the Death Star.