Have you ever experienced dyspnea? It’s the feeling that you just can’t get enough air in your lungs. In simpler terms, it’s that unpleasant experience more commonly known as “shortness of breath.” This “air hunger” can be scary, whether it’s a one time occurrence or an ongoing problem.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, “Dyspnea is a symptom, not a discreet disease, and can be present in the absence of disease, or be the net result of multiple disease processes.” The Clinic also points out that it is an extremely common symptom seen in about 25 percent of patients in an ambulatory setting. (1)
There is somewhat of a laundry list of what can cause dyspnea. Sometimes dyspnea can be a very temporary symptom experienced after strenuous exercise or as the result of being at a higher altitude than normal. Other times, it’s the result of a panic attack, asthma or a lung infection like pneumonia. I’m going to tell you some of the best ways to naturally improve this symptom, but it’s important to note: If you experience recurrent, sudden or severe dyspnea, you should always seek medical assistance right away.
What Is Dyspnea? Is It the Same as Orthopnea?
Dyspnea, often mispelled “dysponea,” is the sensation of difficult or uncomfortable breathing. Another simple dyspnea definition: shortness of breath or labored breathing. Dyspnea is a subjective experience, which means it can be perceived and described differently by each person who experiences it. Dyspnea on exertion (DOE), such as the shortness of breath that briefly occurs after intense exercise, can occur normally, but it is typically viewed as a symptom indicative of disease when it occurs at a level of activity that is usually well-tolerated. (2)
The ICD-10 code for shortness of breath is R06.02. “ICD” stands for the International Classification of Diseases. The shortness of breath ICD-10 code is used by healthcare professionals to identify and record the health condition dyspnea.
Shortness of breath can also be associated with other symptoms, including anxiousness, chest pain, pleurisy, fatigue, dizziness, fainting, coughing, wheezing, bloody sputum, neck pain and chest injury. When a person is described as dyspneic, such as a patient in a hospital, then he or she is struggling with shortness of breath.
Signs you or someone you know is experiencing dyspnea include: (3)
- Shortness of breath after exertion or due to a medical condition
- Painful or uncomfortable breathing
- Rapid, shallow breathing
- Feeling smothered or suffocated as a result of breathing difficulties
- Feeling like you cannot take in enough air
These sensations may also be accompanied by a feeling of chest tightness, pressure or heaviness. Remember: When dyspnea occurs suddenly, repetitively or if symptoms are severe, it may be a sign of a serious medical condition that warrants emergency medical care.
Orthopnea is medically defined as difficulty breathing that occurs when lying down and is relieved upon changing to an upright position. This can occur in cases of congestive heart failure. (4) Another definition of orthopnea is dyspnea that occurs while lying down. Paroxysmal nocturnal dyspnea (PND) is a sensation of shortness of breath that awakens a person, often occurring after one or two hours of sleep, and is typically relieved by getting into an upright position. (2)
Causes of Dyspnea or Shortness of Breath
As I mentioned earlier, dyspnea can occur as a result of overexertion or spending time at high altitude. In these cases, the shortness of breath is typically very manageable and fleeting. Other times, dyspnea is a symptom of an underlying health condition.
Many health conditions can cause shortness of breath. Common causes of acute dyspnea are: (3, 5)
- Allergic reactions
- Anemia or a serious loss of blood resulting in anemia
- Choking on or inhaling something that blocks breathing passageways
- Collapsed lung
- Exposure to dangerous levels of carbon monoxide
- Heart attack
- Heart failure
- Hiatal hernia
- Pneumonia and other respiratory infections
- Pulmonary embolism (a blood clot in an artery to the lung)
Some of the more common causes of chronic dyspnea, which is typically defined as experiencing shortness of breath for over a month, are: (3, 5)
- Being out of shape
- Heart problems
- High blood pressure in the lungs (pulmonary hypertension)
- Lung cancer
- Scarring of the lungs (interstitial lung disease)
Dyspnea is also commonly seen in people with a serious, advanced or terminal illness. (6)
Diagnosis & Conventional Treatment
When you see a doctor for shortness of breath, one of the first questions will likely be whether you experience this symptom when you’re exercising or exerting yourself in some way, or if it occurs at rest. Another likely question will be whether your dyspnea comes on gradually or seemingly out of no where.
After some key questions like this, the doctor will likely perform an exam that includes listening to your lungs. You may also do a lung function test (spirometry), which measures how much air you inhale, how much air you exhale and how quickly you exhale the air. Additional testing may include an electrocardiogram (ECG), pulse oximetry, blood test, chest X-ray and/or a CT scan.
Conventional treatment of dyspnea will vary depending on what the doctor determines is the underlying cause of your shortness of breath.
6 Natural Remedies for Dyspnea
These are some natural ways to improve dyspnea, but they are not a substitute for emergency medical care, which may be warranted. Also, it’s important to remember that dyspnea is a symptom not a condition, so once you know what is causing your dyspnea, you should address the underlying root cause.
1. Improve Your Surrounding Air Quality and Flow
Doesn’t it always feel a little easier to breathe when you have some fresh, clean air coming into your home or car? If you’re feeling a bit stifled, remember to let some outdoor air come into your living space, or take a walk outside in nature. Keeping the amount of dust and pet dander down in your home is also important to your indoor air quality. If you’re feeling short of breath and near someone who is smoking, get away from the smoke as quickly and as much as you possibly can. Another easy tip that may help is to lower the indoor air temperature so you’re not trying to breathe in a hot, stuffy room. You can also try sitting in front of a fan. (7)
2. Try a Humidifier
If the air in your home is too dry, which can easily occur with heat use in the winter, you may want to try using a humidifier. The moist air produced by a humidifier can really help improve dry nasal passages and make breathing feel easier. According to Mayo Clinic, humidifiers are known to improve respiratory conditions. Just make sure to keep your humidifier clean since a dirty one can harbor mold or bacteria. If you know you have allergies or asthma, check with your doctor to make sure a humidifier is a good choice for you. (8)
3. Practice Helpful Breathing Techniques
One way to recover from an episode of shortness of breath due to coughing or physical activity is to: (9)
- Tilt your chin down to your chest.
- Breathe out through your lips in short bursts 10 times.
- When your neck muscles feel less stressed, breathe in through your nose.
- Breathe out through pursed lips three times.
- Breathe in through your nose for four counts.
- Breathe out through an open mouth making an “ah” sound for eight counts.
- Repeat three times.
Another helpful breathing exercise called “quick sniffles” can help to strengthen the diaphragm, which is your principal muscle of respiration. Simply close your mouth and then breathe in and out of your nose quickly for 15 to 30 seconds. Aim to do this exercise several times, until you reach 60 seconds. (9)
You can also check out these other helpful breathing exercises known to reduce stress and target some of the specific underlying causes of dyspnea, like COPD.
4. Reduce Stress and Relax Daily
In addition to breathing exercises, which are excellent for stress reduction, you my also want to try some other techniques known for their calming effects, including yoga, prayer and meditation. These practices can be incorporated into your daily life so you can reap their health benefits on a regular basis and hopefully feel calmer, which always helps to make optimal breathing come easier. A tense body is an antithesis of good, healthy breathing, so do what you can to release tension daily.
Massage therapy is another great way to boost mood and overall wellness. A scientific article published in 2018 points out how after a massage, levels of the stress hormone cortisol are reduced, while levels of serotonin and dopamine (two happiness-inducing neurotransmitters) are increased. (10)
5. Change Your Angle or Outlook
For people with dyspnea, especially people with orthopnea (dyspnea when lying flat), keeping the head lifted can really help to improve symptoms. You can use pillows to keep yourself propped up to a level that makes you feel more comfortable and helps you to breathe easier.
When you feel like breathing is difficult, it can make you feel very smothered and confined. If you can, increase your perception of openness around you by opening a nearby window, going into a bigger or emptier room, going outside or simply taking in a pleasant view of the outdoors. These are all simple yet effective ways to give yourself a helpful feeling of having more open space, which may feel like more room to breathe. (7)
6. Try Acupressure and/or Acupuncture
Experts say both acupressure and acupuncture can help some people feel less short of breath. (9) Both practices focus on the meridians and acupressure points of the body to optimize energy flow and release blockages. Both are generally very relaxing and helpful.
If you experience unexplained shortness of breath, especially if it comes on suddenly and is severe, seek emergency medical attention. If your shortness of breath is accompanied by chest pain, nausea or fainting, it’s possible you are experiencing a heart attack or pulmonary embolism. To be on the safe side, always have someone else drive you to the hospital or call 911 if you are experiencing dyspnea.
It’s also important to see your doctor if you have shortness of breath as well as:
- Wheezing or a cough
- Difficulty breathing when you lie flat (orthopnea)
- High fever or chills
- Swelling in your feet and ankles
You should also see your doctor if your chronic dyspnea becomes worse.
Dyspnea Final Thoughts
- What is dyspnea? It’s the sensation of difficult or labored breathing.
- Dyspnea is a symptom, not a health condition. It can be acute or chronic and has many possible causes.
- Is orthopnea the same as dyspnea? Orthopnea is shortness of breath (dyspnea) that occurs when lying flat.
- Once you know the underlying cause of your dyspnea, you should address the root cause with the help of a healthcare professional.
- Some natural ways to improve shortness of breath include:
- Improving your surrounding air quality and flow
- Using a humidifier
- Practicing helpful breathing techniques
- Reducing stress and relaxing daily by practicing yoga, prayer, meditation or whatever you find to be most helpful
- Changing your angle or outlook
- Trying acupressure, acupuncture and/or massage therapy
- Remember that you should ALWAYS seek emergency medical attention if you experience unexplained shortness of breath, especially if it comes on suddenly, is severe or is accompanied by other symptoms.
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