Background: If descriptors of the sensation of breathlessness are able to differentiate between medical conditions, the language of breathlessness could potentially have a role in differential diagnosis. This study investigated whether the language used to describe the sensation of breathlessness accurately categorized older individuals with and without a prior diagnosis of COPD.
Methods: Using a parallel-group design, participants with and without a prior diagnosis of COPD volunteered words and phrases and endorsed up to three statements to describe their sensation of breathlessness. Cluster analysis (v-fold cross-validation) was applied, and subjects were clustered by their choice of words. Cluster membership was then compared to original group membership (COPD vs non-COPD), and predictive power was assessed.
Results: Groups were similar for age and gender (COPD, n = 94; 48 men; mean age, 70 +/- 10 years [+/- SD]; vs non-COPD, n = 55; 21 men; mean age, 69 +/- 13 years) but differed significantly in breathlessness-related impairment, intensity, and quality of life (p < 0.0001). Cluster membership corresponded accurately with original group classifications (volunteered, 85%; and up to three statements, 68% agreement). Classification based on a single best descriptor (volunteered [62%] or endorsed [55%]) was less accurate for group membership.
Conclusions: Language used to describe the sensation of breathlessness differentiated people with and without a prior diagnosis of COPD when descriptors were not limited to a single best word or statement.