Feeling short of breath: that’s just what happens when we overdo it while being active, or a natural part of getting older that we can’t really do anything about – right? Not quite. The reality is that there is a wide range of reasons for us to feel short of breath, and in many cases (depending on the underlying cause), there are several things that your physiotherapist can do to help you breathe with greater ease – which then means you move throughout your day with greater ease, sleep more comfortably, and feel less limited in the activities you can say ‘yes’ to. Here’s an inside look into shortness of breath and physiotherapy.
Shortness Of Breath: An Overview
Medically known as dyspnea, feeling short of breath is a relatively common symptom that can significantly impact a person’s quality of life, affecting up to 10% of adults. Breathing is a fundamental process that many of us don’t think twice about, so any disruptions to its smooth functioning can feel distressing and alarming. Breath shortness can come on regardless of whether you’re resting or participating in physical activity, and the severity of a person’s shortness of breath can range from mild to severe, with some people simply feeling that their ability to take in a deep breath is somewhat limited, while others feel a significant sense of chest tightness or worse.
What Does Shortness Of Breath Look Or Feel Like?
Due to having a wide range of potential causes, shortness of breath can manifest in various ways. Some common signs and symptoms include:
- Feeling breathless or like you can’t catch your breath
- Rapid breathing (hyperventilation)
- Shallow breathing
- Tightness or discomfort in the chest
- Wheezing or whistling sound during breathing
- Lightheadedness or dizziness
- Difficulty breathing during physical activity
- Difficulty breathing while lying flat
- Lips or skin turning blue
What Causes A Shortness of Breath?
Some common causes of shortness of breath include:
- Musculoskeletal factors: dysfunction in the muscles, joints, and structures involved in breathing, such as the diaphragm, ribcage, and intercostal muscles, can affect the mechanics of breathing. Poor posture, chest tightness, or muscle imbalances can lead to reduced lung capacity and difficulty in breathing deeply.
- Respiratory conditions: respiratory conditions such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), pneumonia, and interstitial lung disease can lead to shortness of breath. These conditions can cause airway inflammation, narrowing, or lung tissue damage, affecting the ability to breathe freely.
- Cardiac conditions: heart-related issues, including congestive heart failure, and coronary artery disease can result in inadequate blood flow and oxygen delivery to the body’s tissues. This can lead to shortness of breath, especially during physical exertion or while lying down.
- Anxiety and stress: psychological factors can also contribute to shortness of breath. Anxiety, panic attacks, and high levels of stress can lead to hyperventilation, a rapid and shallow breathing pattern that can cause a sensation of breathlessness.
Can Physiotherapy Really Help With Shortness Of Breath?
Having a good breathing technique and good airflow availability is an important part of many physical therapy programs, and as such, physiotherapists are experienced in identifying breathing difficulties and helping you improve your respiratory function, lung capacity and overall breathing mechanics. Our goals are to help reduce your breath shortness, open up the airways and the lower lungs, and in some cases help reduce or remove the secretions (mucous) in the lungs. We may use:
- Breathing exercises: many of the clients we work with benefit from learning a series of breathing techniques designed to improve or support their lung capacity, increase respiratory muscle strength, and promote efficient oxygen exchange. These exercises may include diaphragmatic breathing, pursed lip breathing, and controlled deep breathing.
- Manual techniques: in some cases, we are able to help mobilise and clear secretions from the airways, improving airflow and reducing congestion. This may involve percussion, postural drainage, vibration, and coughing techniques.
- Postural education and correction: often, we find that musculoskeletal imbalances or postural issues actually impact a person’s breathing mechanics. Hence, improving posture and ergonomics can help to optimise a person’s lung expansion and breathing efficiency.
- Exercise prescription: in some cases, it may be beneficial to prescribe tailored exercise programs to help improve a person’s cardiovascular fitness, strengthen respiratory muscles, and enhance their overall physical conditioning. These programs may include aerobic exercises, resistance training, and specific breathing exercises.
- Self-management education: a big part of what we do is also empowering you with the right information about why you’re experiencing shortness and breath, and teaching you breathing techniques and strategies to help you manage shortness of breath in daily life. Depending on the cause of your shortness of breath, this may include support on energy conservation, pacing activities, and relaxation techniques to reduce anxiety-induced breathlessness.
As with all of our physio care and solutions here at PhysioCentral, your physiotherapist will always complete a thorough assessment first and foremost, to understand the underlying causes of your shortness of breath, any medical or other management you’re currently receiving, your goals and what your daily life and activities look like, and more. From here, we chat with you and create a management plan together to best support your breathing and help you reach your goals.
To book an appointment, call us on 2522 6972 or book online here.
 – https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/resp.14070
 – https://thorax.bmj.com/content/64/Suppl_1/i1