Chronic dyspnea unexplained by history, physical examination, chest roentgenogram, and spirometry. Analysis of a seven-year experience

Chest. 1991 Nov;100(5):1293-9. doi: 10.1378/chest.100.5.1293.


The purpose of this article is to describe the spectrum and frequency of diseases presenting as unexplained dyspnea and to develop a logical diagnostic approach to such patients. Seventy-two consecutive physician-referred patients had dyspnea greater than one-month duration unexplained by the initial history, physical examination, chest roentgenogram, and spirometry. Patients underwent a standard diagnostic evaluation. A definite cause for dyspnea was recognized in 58 patients, and no answer was found in 14. Twenty-two diseases were recognized in the patient group. Dyspnea was due to pulmonary disease in 26 (36 percent) patients, cardiac disease in ten (14 percent) patients, hyperventilation in 14 (19 percent) patients, and only 3 patients had extrathoracic disease causing dyspnea. Age younger than 40 years, intermittent dyspnea, and normal alveolar-arterial oxygen pressure difference (P[A-a]O2) at rest breathing room air was strongly predictive of bronchial hyperreactivity or hyperventilation. No patient diagnosed as having disease of the lung parenchyma or vasculature had a P(A-a)O2 less than or equal to 20 mm Hg. The differential diagnosis to explain dyspnea in patients with nondirective histories, normal findings from physical examinations, normal chest roentgenograms, and normal spirograms is extensive. The patient's age and measurement of gas exchange at rest help to formulate a diagnostic approach.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Airway Obstruction / complications
  • Dyspnea / etiology*
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Gastroesophageal Reflux / complications
  • Heart Diseases / complications
  • Humans
  • Hyperventilation / complications
  • Kidney Diseases / complications
  • Lung Diseases / complications
  • Medical History Taking
  • Physical Examination
  • Radiography, Thoracic
  • Respiratory Hypersensitivity / complications
  • Spirometry
  • Thyroid Diseases / complications