Dyspnea is the medical term for difficulty breathing, typically presenting as shortness of breath or labored breathing. The term dyspnea encompasses a number of different breathing difficulties, which may be vary in sensation and experience among patients. Despite the differences, the sensation is usually that of strained or uncomfortable breathing that is not normal for the patient. Dyspnea may or may not present with any abnormal breathing sounds, like a stridor or wheeze.
The pattern of breathing (rate and depth) is regulated by the levels of carbon dioxide and oxygen in the blood and the entire process is controlled and maintained by the central nervous system in conjunction with the respiratory system and muscles of respiration as well as the cardiovascular system. Any disturbance within one or more of these systems can lead to dyspnea. Apart from neurological, respiratory and cardiovascular causes, psychological, mechanical and environmental factors may also be responsible for dyspnea.
The labored breathing may occur as result of the patient feeling like they are being ‘starved’ of air or not getting enough air or difficulty when breathing in (inspiration) or out (expiration). In order to compensate, a patient may be seen drawing long or ‘hard’ (forceful) breaths or there is shallow and rapid breathing. It is important to identify acute (sudden or short term) dyspnea from a chronic (persistent, long standing) case in order to diagnose the cause. Shortness of breath due to strenuous physical activity is normal and a quick recovery can be expected once at rest.