Shortness of breath

Shortness of breath, also known as dyspnea, is the feeling that one cannot breathe well enough. The American Thoracic Society defines it as "a subjective experience of breathing discomfort that consists of qualitatively distinct sensations that vary in intensity", and recommends evaluating dyspnea by assessing the intensity of the distinct sensations, the degree of distress involved, and its burden or impact on activities of daily living. Distinct sensations include effort/work, chest tightness, and air hunger (the feeling of not enough oxygen).

Acute coronary syndrome frequently presents with retrosternal chest discomfort and difficulty catching the breath. It however may atypically present with shortness of breath alone. Risk factors include old age, smoking, hypertension, hyperlipidemia, and diabetes. An electrocardiogram and cardiac enzymes are important both for diagnosis and directing treatment. Treatment involves measures to decrease the oxygen requirement of the heart and efforts to increase blood flow.

Asthma is the most common reason for presenting to the emergency room with shortness of breath. It is the most common lung disease in both developing and developed countries affecting about 5% of the population. Other symptoms include wheezing, tightness in the chest, and a non productive cough. Inhaled corticosteroids are the preferred treatment for children, however these drugs can reduce the growth rate. Acute symptoms are treated with short-acting bronchodilators.

Anemia that develops gradually usually presents with exertional dyspnea, fatigue, weakness, and tachycardia. It may lead to heart failure. Anaemia is often a cause of dyspnea. Menstruation, particularly if excessive, can contribute to anaemia and to consequential dyspnea in women. Headaches are also a symptom of dyspnea in patients suffering from anaemia. Some patients report a numb sensation in their head, and others have reported blurred vision caused by hypotension behind the eye due to a lack of oxygen and pressure; these patients have also reported severe head pains, many of which lead to permanent brain damage. Symptoms can include loss of concentration, focus, fatigue, language faculty impairment and memory loss.

Individuals can benefit from a variety of physical therapy interventions. Persons with neurological/neuromuscular abnormalities may have breathing difficulties due to weak or paralyzed intercostal, abdominal and/or other muscles needed for ventilation. Some physical therapy interventions for this population include active assisted cough techniques, volume augmentation such as breath stacking, education about body position and ventilation patterns and movement strategies to facilitate breathing.

Shortness of breath is the primary reason 3.5% of people present to the emergency department in the United States. Of these individuals, approximately 51% are admitted to the hospital and 13% are dead within a year. Some studies have suggested that up to 27% of people suffer from dyspnea, while in dying patients 75% will experience it. Acute shortness of breath is the most common reason people requiring palliative care visit an emergency department.