To what causes do people attribute their chronic breathlessness? A population survey

J Palliat Med. 2012 Jul;15(7):744-50. doi: 10.1089/jpm.2011.0430. Epub 2012 Jun 11.


Objective: Chronic breathlessness is a daily experience for millions of people, despite current therapies. The objective of this study was to find out to what people attributed their breathlessness irrespective of health service utilization, and to understand the demographic characteristics in each diagnostic group.

Methods: A face-to-face, population-based survey (n=4432) asked community-dwelling South Australians the modified Medical Research Council (breathlessness) Scale (mMRC), and, if they were breathless was it chronic (daily for at least 3 of the last 6 months), total duration of this breathlessness and to what body system they attributed their breathlessness. Categorical and continuous variables were analyzed appropriately.

Results: With a participation rate of 63.7%, 8.9% of respondents had an mMRC score ≥1. Breathless people were older (54.3 years SD 19.5, versus 44.9 years SD 18.7; p<0.001), most often attributed their chronic breathlessness to lung disease (65%) and, if breathlessness was the result of lung disease, experienced chronic breathlessness for significantly longer periods of time (13.8 years, SD 15.8) compared with other attributed causes (5.7 years; SD 9.1; p<0.001).

Conclusion: Breathlessness is widely encountered. The burden in prevalence and duration generated by lung disease greatly surpasses other causes. This underlines the need to intensify efforts to minimize the causes of chronic lung disease, and to more actively palliate the subjective symptom of chronic breathlessness.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Chronic Disease
  • Dyspnea / etiology*
  • Dyspnea / psychology
  • Female
  • Health Knowledge, Attitudes, Practice*
  • Health Surveys
  • Humans
  • Lung Diseases / complications*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • South Australia
  • Young Adult