Recent advances in dyspnea

Chest. 2015 Jan;147(1):232-241. doi: 10.1378/chest.14-0800.


Dyspnea is the most prevalent symptom among patients with cardiac and respiratory diseases. It is an independent predictor of mortality in patients with heart disease, COPD, and the elderly. Studies using naloxone to block opioid-receptor signaling demonstrate that endogenous opioids modulate dyspnea in patients with COPD. Neuroimaging studies support a cortical-limbic network for dyspnea perception. A 2012 American Thoracic Society statement recommended that dyspnea be considered across three different constructs: sensory (intensity), affective (distress), and impact on daily activities. The 2013 GOLD (Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease) executive summary recommended a treatment paradigm for patients with COPD based on the modified Medical Research Council dyspnea score. The intensity and quality of dyspnea during exercise in patients with COPD is influenced by the time to onset of critical mechanical volume constraints that are ultimately dictated by the magnitude of resting inspiratory capacity. Long-acting bronchodilators, either singly or in combination, provide sustained bronchodilation and lung deflation that contribute to relief of dyspnea in those with COPD. Opioid medications reduce breathing discomfort by decreasing respiratory drive (and associated corollary discharge), altering central perception, and/or decreasing anxiety. For individuals suffering from refractory dyspnea, a low dose of an opioid is recommended initially, and then titrated to achieve the lowest effective dose based on patient ratings. Acupuncture, bronchoscopic volume reduction, and noninvasive open ventilation are experimental approaches shown to ameliorate dyspnea in patients with COPD, but require confirmatory evidence before clinical use.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Dyspnea / physiopathology*
  • Exercise / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Inspiratory Capacity / physiology*
  • Lung / physiopathology*