female athlete with dyspnea

Some people experience shortness of breath almost daily and can’t seem to figure out why.

It’s a feeling we’ve all had while running to catch the train or bus, pushing too hard at the gym, or suffering from a bad chest cold. But, some people experience shortness of breath almost daily and can’t seem to figure out why.

Occasional dyspnea, or shortness of breath, is common and often is the result of overexertion or a temporary respiratory infection, but chronic (or recurring) dyspnea can greatly affect quality of life and limit participation in activities that many people enjoy.

Because chronic dyspnea can be attributed to a wide range of conditions, from asthma to heart failure, its cause can be difficult to pinpoint, explains Dr. Aaron Waxman, a pulmonologist and director of the Dyspnea Center at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

“If someone is regularly experiencing shortness of breath after exercise, or continues to have shortness of breath after treatment, an evaluation with a specialist who has expertise in dyspnea and its underlying causes is warranted,” says Dr. Waxman.

One of the reasons that dyspnea can be difficult to explain is that many standard tests for shortness of breath, such as electrocardiogram (EKG), computed tomography (CT), and pulmonary function testing (PFT), are performed at rest when symptoms are absent. As such, they frequently provide inconclusive results or misdiagnosis.

The most accurate way to diagnose dyspnea is through Advanced Cardiopulmonary Exercise Testing. This test uses catheters to assess how the body is utilizing oxygen and to measure heart and lung function during exercise (cycling), which often reproduces symptoms. Brigham and Women’s Hospital is one of few hospitals in the nation to offer this test.

Once the source of dyspnea is determined, treatment is generally provided by the specialists most suitable for the underlying condition. Medical therapies can greatly reduce symptoms. Sometimes, surgery may be performed to address the cause of dyspnea.

If you have chronic dyspnea, talk with your doctor and learn how you can breathe a little easier.

– Jessica F

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