Shortness of Breath

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Shortness of Breath


Shortness of breath, or dyspnea, is a feeling of difficult or labored breathing that is out of proportion to the patient's level of physical activity. It is a symptom of a variety of different diseases or disorders and may be either acute or chronic.


The experience of dyspnea depends on its severity and underlying causes. The feeling itself results from a combination of impulses relayed to the brain from nerve endings in the lungs, rib cage, chest muscles, or diaphragm, combined with the patient's perception and interpretation of the sensation. In some cases, the patient's sensation of breathlessness is intensified by anxiety about its cause. Patients describe dyspnea variously as unpleasant shortness of breath, a feeling of increased effort or tiredness in moving the chest muscles, a panicky feeling of being smothered, or a sense of tightness or cramping in the chest wall.

Causes and symptoms

ACUTE DYSPNEA. Acute dyspnea with sudden onset is a frequent cause of emergency room visits. Most cases of acute dyspnea involve pulmonary (lung and breathing) disorders, cardiovascular disease, or chest trauma.

PULMONARY DISORDERS. Pulmonary disorders that can cause dyspnea include airway obstruction by a foreign object, swelling due to infection, or anaphylactic shock ; acute pneumonia; hemorrhage from the lungs; or severe bronchospasms associated with asthma.

CARDIOVASCULAR DISEASE. Acute dyspnea can be caused by disturbances of the heart rhythm, failure of the left ventricle, mitral valve (a heart valve) dysfunction, or an embolus (a clump of tissue, fat, or gas) that is blocking the pulmonary circulation. Most pulmonary emboli (blood clots ) originate in the deep veins of the lower legs and eventually migrate to the pulmonary artery.

TRAUMA. Chest injuries, both closed injuries and penetrating wounds, can cause pneumothorax (the presence of air inside the chest cavity), bruises, or fractured ribs. Pain from these injuries results in dyspnea. The impact of the driver's chest against the steering wheel in auto accidents is a frequent cause of closed chest injuries.

OTHER CAUSES. Anxiety attacks sometimes cause acute dyspnea; they may or may not be associated with chest pain. Anxiety attacks are often accompanied by hyperventilation, which is a breathing pattern characterized by abnormally rapid and deep breaths. Hyperventilation raises the oxygen level in the blood, causing chest pain and dizziness.

Chronic dyspnea

PULMONARY DISORDERS. Chronic dyspnea can be caused by asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), bronchitis, emphysema, inflammation of the lungs, pulmonary hypertension, tumors, or disorders of the vocal cords.

HEART DISEASE. Disorders of the left side of the heart or inadequate supply of blood to the heart muscle can cause dyspnea. In some cases a tumor in the heart or inflammation of the membrane surrounding the heart may cause dyspnea.

NEUROMUSCULAR DISORDERS. Neuromuscular disorders cause dyspnea from progressive deterioration of the patient's chest muscles. They include muscular dystrophy, myasthenia gravis, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

OTHER CAUSES. Patients who are severely anemic may develop dyspnea if they exercise vigorously. Hyperthyroidism or hypothyroidism may cause shortness of breath, and so may gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Both chronic anxiety disorders z of physical fitness can also cause episodes of dyspnea. Deformities of the chest or obesity can cause dyspnea by limiting the movement of the chest wall and the ability of the lungs to fill completely.


Patient history

The patient's history provides the doctor with such necessary information as a history of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), asthma, or other allergic conditions; the presence of chest pain as well as difficulty breathing; recent accidents or recent surgery; information about smoking habits; the patient's baseline level of physical activity and exercise habits; and a psychiatric history of panic attacks or anxiety disorders.

ASSESSMENT OF BODY POSITION. How a person's body position affects his/her dyspnea symptoms sometimes gives hints as to the underlying cause of the disorder. Dyspnea that is worse when the patient is sitting up is called platypnea and indicates the possibility of liver disease. Dyspnea that is worse when the patient is lying down is called orthopnea, and is associated with heart disease or paralysis of the diaphragm. Paroxysmal nocturnal dyspnea (PND) refers to dyspnea that occurs during sleep and forces the patient to awake gasping for breath. It is usually relieved if the patient sits up or stands. PND may point to dysfunction of the left ventricle of the heart, hypertension, or narrowing of the mitral valve.

Physical examination

The doctor will examine the patient's chest in order to determine the rate and depth of breathing, the effort required, the condition of the patient's breathing muscles, and any evidence of chest deformities or trauma. He or she will listen for wheezing, stridor, or signs of fluid in the lungs. If the patient has a fever, the doctor will look for other signs of pneumonia. The doctor will check the patient's heart functions, including blood pressure, pulse rate, and the presence of heart murmurs or other abnormal heart sounds. If the doctor suspects a blood clot in one of the large veins leading to the heart, he or she will examine the patient's legs for signs of swelling.

Diagnostic tests

BASIC DIAGNOSTIC TESTS. Patients who are seen in emergency rooms are given a chest x ray and electrocardiogram (ECG) to assist the doctor in evaluating abnormalities of the chest wall, also to determine the position of the diaphragm, possible rib fractures or pneumothorax, irregular heartbeat, or the adequacy of the supply of blood to the heart muscle. Also, the patient may be given a breathing test on an instrument called a spirometer to screen for airway disorders.

The doctor may order blood tests and arterial blood gas tests to rule out anemia, hyperventilationfrom an anxiety attack, or thyroid dysfunction. A sputum culture can be used to test for pneumonia.

SPECIALIZED TESTS. Specialized tests may be ordered for patients with normal results from basic diagnostic tests for dyspnea. High-resolution CT scans can be used for suspected airway obstruction or mild emphysema. Tissue biopsy performed with a bronchoscope can be used for patients with suspected lung disease.

If the doctor suspects a pulmonary embolism, heor she may order ventilation-perfusion scanning to inspect lung function, an angiogram of blood vessels, or ultrasound studies of the leg veins. Echocardiography can be used to test for pulmonary hypertension and heart disease.

Pulmonary function studies or electromyography (EMG) are used to assess neuromuscular diseases. Exercise testing is used to assess dyspnea related to COPD, anxiety attacks, poor physical fitness, and the severity of lung or heart disease. The level of acidity in the patient's esophagus may be monitored to rule out GERD.


Treatment of dyspnea depends on its underlying cause.

Acute dyspnea

Patients with acute dyspnea are given oxygen in the emergency room, with the following treatments for specific conditions:

  • Asthma. Treatment with Alupent, epinephrine, or aminophylline.
  • Anaphylactic shock. Treatment with Benadryl, steroids, or aminophylline, with hydrocortisone if necessary.
  • Congestive heart failure. Treatment with oxygen, diuretics, and placing patient in upright position.
  • Pneumonia. Treatment with antibiotics and removal of lung secretions.
  • Anxiety attacks. Immediate treatment includes antidepressant medications. If the patient is hyperventilating, he or she may be asked to breathe into a paper bag to normalize breathing rhythm and the oxygen level of the blood.
  • Pneumothorax. Surgical placement of a chest tube.

Chronic dyspnea

The treatment of chronic dyspnea depends on the underlying disorder. Asthma can often be managed with a combination of medications to reduce airway spasms and removal of allergens from the patient's environment. COPD requires both medication, lifestyle changes, and long-term physical rehabilitation. Anxiety disorders are usually treated with a combination of medication and psychotherapy. GERD can usually be managed with antacids, other medications, and dietary changes. There are no permanent cures for myasthenia gravis or muscular dystrophy.

Tumors and certain types of chest deformities can be treated surgically.

Alternative treatment

The appropriate alternative therapy for shortness of breath depends on the underlying cause of the condition. When dyspnea is acute and severe, oxygen therapy is used either in the doctor's office or in the emergency room. For shortness of breath with an underlying physical cause like asthma, anaphylactic shock, or pneumonia, the physical condition should be treated. Botanical and homeopathic remedies can be used for acute dyspnea, if the proper remedies and formulas are prescribed. If the dyspnea has a psychological basis (especially if it is caused by anxiety), acupuncture, botanical medicine, and homeopathy can help the patient heal at a deep level.


The prognosis for recovery depends on the underlying cause of the dyspnea, its severity, and the type of treatment required.


Dyspnea caused by asthma can be minimized or prevented by removing dust and other triggers from the patient's environment. Long-term prevention of chronic dyspnea includes such lifestyle choices as regular aerobic exercise and avoidance of smoking.



Gillespie, D. J., and E. J. Olson. "Dyspnea." In Current Diagnosis. Vol. 9. Edited by Rex B. Conn, et al. Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders Co., 1997.


Anaphylactic shock A severe systemic reaction to an allergen that occurs in hypersensitive individuals. It can cause spasms of the larynx that block the patient's airway and cause dyspnea.

Dyspnea A sensation of difficult or labored breathing.

Electromyography A technique for recording electric currents in an active muscle in order to measure its level of function.

Orthopnea Difficulty in breathing that occurs while the patient is lying down.

Paroxysmal nocturnal dyspnea (PND) A form of dyspnea characterized by the patient's waking from sleep unable to breathe.

Platypnea Dyspnea that occurs when the patient is sitting up.

Pneumothorax The presence of air or gas inside the chest cavity.

Spirometer An instrument that is used to test lung capacity. It is used to screen patients with dyspnea.

Stridor A harsh or crowing breath sound caused by partial blockage of the patient's upper airway.

Wheezing A whistling or musical sound caused by tightening of the air passages inside the patient's chest. Wheezing is most commonly associated with asthma.