oPatientPlus articles are written by UK doctors and are based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. They are designed for health professionals to use, so you may find the language more technical than the condition leaflets.
Breathlessness is the subjective sensation of difficult, laboured or uncomfortable breathing.
Physiologically, we are all aware of breathlessness when we exercise beyond our normal tolerance but pathologically it can occur with little or no exertion. Afferent sources for the sensation of breathlessness arise from receptors in the upper airway, lungs and chest wall as well as autonomic centres in the brain stem and motor cortex. It is almost always associated with fear and, when chronic, can be disabling and severely diminish quality of life.
Approximately two thirds of cases of dyspnoea in adults are due to a pulmonary or cardiac disorder. In about a third of cases, diagnosis will be multifactorial.
- Cardiac causes:
- Pulmonary causes:
- Other causes of acute breathlessness:
- Cardiac causes:
- Pulmonary causes:
- Other causes:
Next to pain, breathlessness is the most common symptom for which patients seek help and relief from their doctor. Peak incidence of chronic dyspnoea occurs in the 55 to 69 year-old age bracket. 70% of all terminal cancer patients suffer breathlessness in their last six weeks.
- Duration of breathlessness and speed of onset, ie acute, chronic
- Timing of breathlessness, eg diurnal variation with asthma
- Any known precipitating events, eg trauma, palpitations, chest pain, exercise
- Try to quantify exercise tolerance (eg breathlessness at rest, with talking, dressing, distance walked or number of stairs climbed).
MRC dyspnoea score Grade Impact 1 Not troubled by breathlessness except on vigorous exertion. 2 Short of breath when hurrying or walking up inclines. 3 Walks slower than contemporaries because of breathlessness, or has to stop for breath when walking at own pace. 4 Stops for breath after walking about 100 metres or stops after a few minutes' walking on the level. 5 Too breathless to leave the house or breathless on dressing or undressing.
- Smoking history
- Past history of chest or cardiac disease
- History of atopy
- History of anxiety-related disorder
- Family history
- Pets ± contact with birds
- Drug exposure (betablockers, amiodarone, nitrofurantoin, methotrexate, heroin)
- General, eg patient distress, colour of skin and lips, cyanosis, clubbing, lymphadenopathy, tremor, flap
- Trachea - central, deviated to one side
- Shape of chest, eg kyphosis
- Movement of chest - symmetrical, asymmetrical
- Respiratory rate
- Pulse - rate, rhythm
- Percussion note, eg stony dull over a pleural effusion, hyperresonant over a pneumothorax
- Auscultation of chest
Auscultation of the chest Sign Possible cause Wheezing/rhonchi Asthma
Stridor Foreign body
No added sounds Anaemia
These will be dependent on the findings of the history and examination but may include:
- Lung function tests, eg peak flow measurement, FEV1, FVC, ± reversibility after short-acting beta-agonist inhalation
- Pulse oximetry
- Arterial blood gases
- Brain natriuretic peptides (BNPs)
- High-resolution CT scan
- V/Q scan
- Radioallergosorbent test (RAST) measurement or skin prick testing to common aeroallergens
Dependent on the underlying cause.
- In an acute situation, breathless individuals should be assessed rapidly and treated with high flow oxygen (>60%) unless there is a known history of COPD, in addition to any specific therapy for the underlying condition. If unstable, transfer to hospital should be arranged as an emergency.
- In the chronic situation, the underlying cause should be addressed and treated. Frequently breathlessness is a common end point of non-reversible disease and symptomatic relief should be sought instead.
Strategies for relieving breathlessness (of respiratory origin)
- Reassure and educate the patient and care-givers to increase confidence in their ability to control and interpret symptoms.
- Controlled breathing technique counteracts the fast, shallow, inefficient breathing associated with dyspnoea:
- Sit upright
- Control respiratory rate
- Use diaphragmatic breathing
- Relax shoulders and upper chest.
- Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) seeks to modify the patient's response to the symptom. Anxiety and panic can be reduced often by using techniques such as distraction or relaxation.
- Drug treatment can be used to reduce the sensation of breathlessness. Opiates, such as morphine and codeine, are effective and used in palliative care settings but may further depress breathing so care is required. Similarly, benzodiazepines such as diazepam are used to reduce anxiety associated with breathlessness but also carry the side-effect of respiratory depression. The use of nebulised furosemide is under investigation.
Drugs for symptom control of dyspnoea
- Oral morphine 2-2.5 mg prn if opioid naive. This dose can be repeated every 4 hours, although frequent dosing may not be required and may be used in anticipation of exercise (take 30 minutes prior to exercise for those with dyspnoea on exertion).
- If already taking regular analgesic morphine, increase the regular dose by around 30% every 2-3 days until symptoms are controlled or adverse effects limit further increases.
- Once stable, this can be converted to a modified-release preparation if needed regularly throughout the day. If only one or two doses are needed each day, continue as-required doses of standard-release morphine.
- Benzodiazepines used when anxiety is an integral part of breathlessness, alone or alongside opiates, e.g lorazepam sublingual 0.5-1 mg prn or diazepam 2-5 mg tds, where there are persistent symptoms. Start at low doses in elderly or debilitated people.
- Pulmonary rehabilitation - individuals with severe breathlessness become less active and their general fitness levels diminish, causing a cycle of worsening breathlessness with less and less physical exertion. Supervised programmes of exercise training have been shown to be beneficial in COPD, improving both dyspnoea and fatigue levels, and rehabilitation should not be neglected in a palliative setting.
- Nutrition - patients with severe respiratory disease tend to be cachexic and have such generalised muscle weakness that the work of breathing is extremely demanding. Addressing nutritional needs with a dietician may be helpful.
- Ongoing or intermittent oxygen therapy via a facemask or nasal prongs may be of benefit in some selected cases. In chronic heart and lung disease, benefit is only evident where there is confirmed hypoxia or pulmonary hypertension. Consistent benefit of oxygen therapy in advanced lung cancer or cardiac failure patients has not been shown.
- Partial ventilation support - continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) can be used for several hours a day to rest chest muscles but is intrusive and of temporary benefit only.
- Positioning - leaning forward when standing or nursing a bed-bound patient as upright as possible can help to relieve breathlessness.
- Stream of air on the face via a fan or open window.
- Modifying activities of daily living, lifestyle and expectations in line with disability.
Further reading & references
- Ries AL; Impact of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease on quality of life: the role of dyspnea. Am J Med. 2006 Oct;119(10 Suppl 1):12-20.
- Karnani NG, Reisfield GM, Wilson GR; Evaluation of chronic dyspnea. Am Fam Physician. 2005 Apr 15;71(8):1529-37.
- Zoorob RJ, Campbell JS; Acute dyspnea in the office. Am Fam Physician. 2003 Nov 1;68(9):1803-10.
- Davis CL; ABC of palliative care. Breathlessness, cough, and other respiratory problems. BMJ. 1997 Oct 11;315(7113):931-4.
- Bausewein C, Booth S, Higginson IJ; Measurement of dyspnoea in the clinical rather than the research setting. Curr Opin Support Palliat Care. 2008 Jun;2(2):95-9.
- Jennings AL, Davies AN, Higgins JP, et al; A systematic review of the use of opioids in the management of dyspnoea. Thorax. 2002 Nov;57(11):939-44.
- Abernethy AP, Currow DC, Frith P, et al; Randomised, double blind, placebo controlled crossover trial of sustained release morphine for the management of refractory dyspnoea. BMJ. 2003 Sep 6;327(7414):523-8.
- Currow DC, Ward AM, Abernethy AP; Advances in the pharmacological management of breathlessness. Curr Opin Support Palliat Care. 2009 Jun;3(2):103-6.
- Palliative care - dyspnoea, Clinical Knowledge Summaries (2007)
- Lacasse Y, Goldstein R, Lasserson TJ, et al; Pulmonary rehabilitation for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2006 Oct 18;(4):CD003793.
- Sachs S, Weinberg RL; Pulmonary rehabilitation for dyspnea in the palliative-care setting. Curr Opin Support Palliat Care. 2009 Jun;3(2):112-9.
- Cranston JM, Crockett A, Currow D; Oxygen therapy for dyspnoea in adults. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2008 Jul 16;(3):CD004769.
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|Original Author: Dr Chloe Borton||Current Version: Dr Chloe Borton|
|Last Checked: 19/02/2010||Document ID: 1886 Version: 23||© EMIS|