Graded comprehensive cardiopulmonary exercise testing in the evaluation of dyspnea unexplained by routine evaluation

Chest. 1994 Jan;105(1):168-74. doi: 10.1378/chest.105.1.168.


The evaluation of dyspnea is problematic when a cause is inapparent after initial diagnostic studies. We examined the results and role of cardiopulmonary exercise testing (CPET) in 50 patients with a mean 23 months of dyspnea and normal FEV1 and FVC. The CPET studies were interpreted by a panel and a consensus reached. Subsequent tests ordered by the primary physician were reviewed, and a final diagnosis was agreed on by the panel. Seven of 50 patients had cardiac limitation, 17 of 50 had pulmonary limitation, 14 of 50 had obesity and/or deconditioning, 1 of 50 had gastroesophageal reflux, and 16 of 50 had either psychogenic dyspnea or no identifiable disease. Five patients had more than one clinical diagnosis accounting for 55 diagnoses in the 50 patients. Those with a normal CPET had a higher VO2max and O2 pulse than those with cardiac disease, deconditioning, or hyperactive airways disease (HAD) (p < 0.05). Electrocardiographic changes identified cardiac disease while studies demonstrating ventilatory limitation identified a pulmonary process. In 24, deconditioning could not be distinguished from cardiac limitation. Of these, 14 responded to exercise training and/or weight loss, whereas 3 had cardiac disease, 7 had HAD, and 4 had psychogenic dyspnea (4 had more than one clinical diagnosis). In the 13 patients with normal CPET results, one had gastroesophageal reflux, two had HAD, four had psychogenic dyspnea, and six had no identifiable disease. We conclude that a diagnosis can be made in most patients with chronic dyspnea; however, further studies including bronchoprovocation are often required. Cardiopulmonary exercise testing is useful in identifying a cardiac or pulmonary process, but it is insensitive in distinguishing cardiac disease from deconditioning.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Bronchial Hyperreactivity / diagnosis
  • Bronchial Hyperreactivity / physiopathology
  • Dyspnea / diagnosis*
  • Dyspnea / physiopathology
  • Dyspnea / psychology
  • Electrocardiography
  • Exercise Test / methods*
  • Female
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Forced Expiratory Volume / physiology
  • Heart Diseases / diagnosis*
  • Heart Diseases / physiopathology
  • Humans
  • Lung Diseases / diagnosis*
  • Lung Diseases / physiopathology
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Obesity / diagnosis
  • Obesity / physiopathology
  • Oxygen / blood
  • Physical Exertion / physiology
  • Physical Fitness / physiology
  • Prospective Studies
  • Psychophysiologic Disorders / diagnosis
  • Psychophysiologic Disorders / physiopathology
  • Pulmonary Diffusing Capacity / physiology
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Vital Capacity / physiology


  • Oxygen