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4 Potential Causes of Shortness of Breath

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As an athlete, learning how to control and leverage your breathing is an important part of your training, which makes a difference in how you’ll cope with mental and physical stress during marathons or competitions. 

But noticing that your respiratory system is working harder to meet the increased need for oxygen during exercise isn’t the same as suffering from chronic shortness of breath. In this case, understanding what the underlying causes are is the first step to finding the right treatment.

Exercise-induced bronchoconstriction or asthma

Exercise and a robust fitness routine are essential aspects of a healthy lifestyle. Among other benefits, they play an important role in helping individuals build pulmonary capacity, strengthen the muscles involved with breathing, and ease difficulties. 

At the same time, for people with exercise-induced bronchoconstriction (EIB) – exercise-induced asthma – engaging in sports can be a risky trigger leading to dangerous asthma attacks. 

For otherwise-healthy runners with EIB, this condition can be incredibly frustrating. However, there are several treatment options that can help you boost your performance and enjoy your next run – including pre-workout medications. 

Haematologic conditions

Shortness of breath, or dyspnea, can have a wide range of causes. Some of these, including poor physical conditioning or subpar aerobic fitness, can be addressed with a change of lifestyle. But, dyspnea can also stem from serious or fatal conditions, such as hematologic diseases. 

Haematologic disorders, such as cell disease, anemia, and malignancies, affect the blood and blood-forming organs. In turn, these conditions can compromise the body’s ability to transport oxygen and affect the blood’s composition. 

If you have been diagnosed with a blood-affecting disorder, you might experience “air hunger” during exercise and non, and you should make sure to find suitable hematology care to address the root of the problem. 

Heart and circulatory problems

Shortness of breath is often a symptom of fatigue and exertion. But in some cases, it can also be a telltale sign of an underlying heart problem. 

Some heart and circulatory conditions can affect the heart’s rhythms and the rate at which the organ is able to pump blood – and, thus, fresh oxygen – around the body. 

Some of the heart diseases that might lead to chronic or acute dyspnea include:

  • Heart failure or heart attack
  • Cardiac arrhythmia (problems with heart rhythms like atrial fibrillation)
  • Cardiomyopathy
  • Coronary artery disease (CAD)
  • Pericarditis 

If you have been diagnosed with heart disease, or you can’t find the root cause of your shortness of breath, it’s important to consult a cardiologist and undergo heart rate training. 

Don’t forget that, when exacerbated by exertion and stress triggers, heart conditions can lead to fatal incidents, like a cardiac arrest. 

Lung problems and pulmonary infections

Over the past two years, the world has grown to fear even minor breathing difficulties – and rightfully so!

While known infections like Covid can make it harder for patients to take deep breaths, a wide range of pulmonary or lung conditions can compromise the entire respiratory system. 

For example, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), pulmonary infections (i.e.: pneumonia), collapsed lungs, cancer, and blood clots can affect the normal functioning of the lungs, thus leading to breathing difficulties. 

If your shortness of breath is coupled with a sharp decline in exercise performance, a cough that won’t go away, or chronic pain, make sure to consult a specialized healthcare provider. 

Other causes of shortness of breath

Other possible causes of shortness of breath include poor physical fitness, anxiety and panic attack disorders, and obesity. 

While an individual condition is enough to trigger shortness of breath, experts at the University of Utah Health report that most of the time, there is a combination of factors leading to dyspnea. 

For example, people who have been diagnosed with heart or lung problems tend to limit their exercise. In turn, their poor level of fitness begets shortness of breath, which can lead to worsened heart or lung health. 

This vicious circle might be hard to break without the help of an expert breathing coach and healthcare provider. Surround yourself with running experts and specialists who can help you treat any underlying health disorder and introduce breathing exercises into your training routine.

Adam Mulligan did his degree in psychology at the University of Hertfordshire. He is interested in mental health, wellness, and lifestyle.  

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