What is Dyspnea and Why Do We Need to Study It?

‘Shortness of breath,’ also called ‘breathlessness’ or dyspnea is a common symptom of lung or heart disease. Shortness of breath is a very important and useful warning of serious disease, and should not be ignored. On the other hand, when the disease has been diagnosed and is being controlled, persistent shortness of breath can interfere greatly with quality of life. In these cases we try to relieve the symptom.

“Doc, I can’t breathe!” — The experience of not being able to breathe is very unpleasant and can be frightening. The sensation that something is wrong with your breathing is termed ‘shortness of breath’ or ‘dyspnea.’ 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! Slow down, start breathing.

However, dyspnea is a very important symptom of lung and heart disease. This symptom, like pain, is both useful and problematic. Dyspnea is useful because it is often the only warning of serious lung or heart disease. On the other hand, dyspnea is very unpleasant and there are many times that we would like to provide relief to improve quality of life (just as we provide pain relief), but we currently have no good tools to provide dyspnea relief. The problem is a big one: dyspnea is actually as common as pain in serious disease. Half of seriously ill patients admitted to tertiary care hospitals report pain, and an equal number report dyspnea. Many patients suffer from both of these debilitating symptoms. In the final stages of terminal illness, the problem of dyspnea often increases while pain decreases (due to effective treatment). In addition, many patients experience dyspnea with no obvious organic cause.

We know much less about dyspnea than we know about pain mechanisms and pain relief probably because there are fewer scientists studying dyspnea; one aim of this website is to encourage young scientists to consider training in this field.

We have published a short review that is available on the web at the Bulletin of the American Pain Society.