Shortness of breath, or dyspnea, is a feeling of difficult or labored breathing that is out of proportion to the patient's level of physical activity. It is a symptom of a variety of different diseases or disorders and may be either acute or chronic.
The experience of dyspnea depends on its severity and underlying causes. The feeling itself results from a combination of impulses relayed to the brain from nerve endings in the lungs, rib cage, chest muscles, or diaphragm, combined with the patient's perception and interpretation of the sensation. In some cases, the patient's sensation of breathlessness is intensified by anxiety about its cause. Patients describe dyspnea variously as unpleasant shortness of breath, a feeling of increased effort or tiredness in moving the chest muscles, a panicky feeling of being smothered, or a sense of tightness or cramping in the chest wall.
Causes and symptoms
ACUTE DYSPNEA. Acute dyspnea with sudden onset is a frequent cause of emergency room visits. Most cases of acute dyspnea involve pulmonary (lung and breathing) disorders, cardiovascular disease, or chest trauma.
CARDIOVASCULAR DISEASE. Acute dyspnea can be caused by disturbances of the heart rhythm, failure of the left ventricle, mitral valve (a heart valve) dysfunction, or an embolus (a clump of tissue, fat, or gas) that is blocking the pulmonary circulation. Most pulmonary emboli (blood clots) originate in the deep veins of the lower legs and eventually migrate to the pulmonary artery.
TRAUMA. Chest injuries, both closed injuries and penetrating wounds, can cause pneumothorax (the presence of air inside the chest cavity), bruises, or fractured ribs. Pain from these injuries results in dyspnea. The impact of the driver's chest against the steering wheel in auto accidents is a frequent cause of closed chest injuries.
OTHER CAUSES. Anxiety attacks sometimes cause acute dyspnea; they may or may not be associated with chest pain. Anxiety attacks are often accompanied by hyperventilation, which is a breathing pattern characterized by abnormally rapid and deep breaths. Hyperventilation raises the oxygen level in the blood, causing chest pain and dizziness.
Rebecca J. Frey, The Gale Group Inc., Gale, Detroit,