Episodic and continuous breathlessness: a new categorization of breathlessness

J Pain Symptom Manage. 2013 Jun;45(6):1019-29. doi: 10.1016/j.jpainsymman.2012.06.008. Epub 2012 Sep 25.


Context: Unlike pain, where the concept of breakthrough and background pain has been widely characterized and defined, breathlessness as a symptom has not yet been fully explored and has been rarely categorized.

Objectives: To explore patients' experiences and descriptions of breathlessness to categorize breathlessness.

Methods: Qualitative study using in-depth interviews with patients suffering from four life-limiting and advanced diseases (chronic heart failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, and motor neuron disease). Interviews were tape-recorded, transcribed verbatim, and analyzed using Framework analysis.

Results: A total of 51 participants were interviewed (mean ± SD age 68.2 ± 11.6 years; 30 of 51 male; median Karnofsky 60%; mean ± SD breathlessness intensity 3.2 ± 1.7 of 10). Episodic breathlessness and continuous breathlessness were the main categories, with subcategories of triggered and non-triggered episodic breathlessness and continuous breathlessness for short and long periods. Episodic breathlessness triggered by exertion, non-triggered episodic breathlessness, and continuous breathlessness for a long period ("constant variable") were the most frequent and important categories with a high impact on daily living. Exertional breathlessness occurred in nearly all participants. Participants could differentiate episodic breathlessness (seconds, minutes, or hours) and continuous breathlessness (days, weeks, or months) by time. Episodic breathlessness occurred in isolation or in conjunction with continuous breathlessness.

Conclusion: Participants categorize their breathlessness by time and triggers. The categorization needs further verification, similar to that already established in pain, and can be used as a new evidence-based categorization to advance our understanding of this under-researched, yet high impact, symptom to optimize management.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Acute Disease
  • Aged
  • Apnea
  • Chronic Disease
  • Dyspnea / classification*
  • Dyspnea / diagnosis*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Severity of Illness Index*
  • Terminology as Topic*
  • United Kingdom