What is Dyspnea?

Dyspnea is often known as shortness of breath, air hunger, or breathlessness. It is a common symptom of lung or heart disease, and an important and useful warning of serious disease.

We have published a short review of dyspnea, available online through the Bulletin of the American Pain Society.

Why do we study dyspnea?

“Doc, I can’t breathe!” The experience of not being able to breathe is very unpleasant and, potentially frightening. Most of us only feel short of breath when we do things like running up 5 flights of stairs or holding our breath under water. In this case, the ‘cure’ is easy: We can slow down and start breathing. However, persistent shortness of breath can interfere greatly with quality of life.

Dyspnea is an important symptom of lung and heart disease; often, it acts as the only warning to serious lung or heart disease. However, the experience of dyspnea is quite unpleasant. Because of this, we try to provide relief, in order to improve quality of life. These efforts are analogous to those involved  in pain relief.

In fact, dyspnea is reported as commonly as pain, in cases of serious illness. Approximately half of seriously ill patients admitted to tertiary care hospitals report pain, and an equal amount report dyspnea. Many patient suffer from both pain and dyspnea. In the final stages of terminal illnesses, feelings of dyspnea can increase, while those of pain decrease, given effective treatment. Many patients experience dyspnea with no knowledge of organic cause.

Unfortunately, few tools exist to provide dyspnea relief. Less is known about dyspnea than about pain mechanisms and pain relief, worsened by the low number of scientists studying dyspnea. We hope to investigate potential treatments and mechanisms to ease the experience of dyspnea, and encourage young scientists to enter this field, too.