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Always Out of Breath When Exercising? You Might Have Dyspnea

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Always Out of Breath When Exercising? You Might Have Dyspnea

Sep 19, 2018

If you find yourself gasping for air while exercising, you could be out of shape… or it could be a sign of something more serious. Dyspnea is what’s known as shortness of breath. Dr. John Ryan, director of the new dyspnea clinic at University of Utah Health, talks about why a wide variety of people are affected and when to see a doctor about the condition.

Episode Transcript

Announcer: Health information from expects, supported by research. From University of Utah Health, this is

Interviewer: If you have chronic shortness of breath while exerting yourself or exercising, it could be a condition called dyspnea. Dr. John Ryan is the director of the new dyspnea clinic here at the University of Utah Division of Cardiology. It's one of the first clinics of its kind and currently the only one here in the Mountain West region. Tell me, dyspnea; what causes it?

Dyspnea Causes

Dr. Ryan: Dyspnea is, as you described, a shortness of breath on exertion. It can be driven by a lot of things. A lot of the time it's due to stiff hearts or diastolic dysfunction. Other times it's due to chronic lung disease; asthma, emphysema, bronchitis, etc. Obesity in particular can also contribute to it. Then sometimes, of course, it can be due to deconditioning.

However, most of the time that we see is a combination. People have problems with their heart and problems with their lungs and then become deconditioned, and then their shortness of breath begets more shortness of breath and begets more dyspnea. The analogy we give when people come in is that if your work life isn't going well, your home life likely won't be going well either, because everything just has a knock-on effect. Therefore, in dyspnea when you have the chronic shortness of breath in the setting with exertion, there will be knock-on effects on your heart, on your lungs, on your waist, and also, incidentally actually, on your mood as well.

So all of these things tie together and we really wanted to break down the traditional barriers in medicine which are organ-based barriers, which are incredibly artificial and evolve into a more patient-centered approach in order to figure out what it is that's going on with you and what we can do to help you.

Interviewer: And what's causing your problem.

Dr. Ryan: And what's causing your problem, specific to you rather than saying, "It's not this organ, it's not that organ," but actually say, "Listen, this is what's going on."

Diagnosing Shortness of Breath

Interviewer: So is dyspnea hard to diagnose for a regular physician? If I went in to my physician and said, "I exercise and I get really short of breath," are they going to miss that a lot of times, or no?

Dr. Ryan: Yeah. Dyspnea is more of a symptom. It's what people describe or what they complain of. Ironing it out is not difficult, but it just takes time or takes testing to figure out what the cause is.

Interviewer: It takes an expert that knows, because there are a lot of different things that can cause it, right?

Dr. Ryan: Yeah, and it really takes an involved program as well, and a protocol. We have a protocol in terms of when people come in, what testing we recommend.

Interviewer: Who are some of the common patients that come in? Are they people that are athletes or like to exercise? You mentioned some of these rural areas. I suppose you get a lot of farmer ranchers?

Dr. Ryan: The patients that we get really vary considerably. We get a lot of young ladies in their 20s who really are thin and have previously been quite active and find themselves getting fatigued very easily. Then we get a lot of folks in their 50s and 60s who, again, similar to the farmers that you described who are just becoming very, very fatigued and aren't able to do the full days of work or are just very tired by the end of the full days of work.

I think the main thing that we're trying to move away from is a 60-year-old person who isn't able to exercise as much as they used to and telling them, "It's just because you've gotten older." So I think that shouldn't happen and that's not exactly very rewarding, either.

Relieving Shortness of Breath

Interviewer: You said you can't help everybody, but for the most part do you find that people live better lives after they come to you?

Dr. Ryan: I think so, and that's our goal, that their quality of life improves. A lot of the times we try and rule out the things that will shorten their length of life, so coronary artery disease, valvular disease, pulmonary hypertension, and then once we've ruled out the things that will shorten their length of life, then we re-focus on improving their quality of life so that they are able to do more.

Most people have realistic expectations. Even your 60-year-old farmer from Idaho knows that they're not going to be able to do as much as when they were 20 or 30. So most people's expectations are realistic, it's just they want a better quality of life. I think we're doing that.

How to Schedule an Appointment

Interviewer: Are you somebody that a patient can come directly to or do they have to go to their primary care physician first?

Dr. Ryan: Folks can come to us directly. Most of the time, 90% of our patients are coming through their primary care doctor probably because dyspnea is a medical term for shortness of breath and most folks, patients themselves, don't describe dyspnea but their doctors would. So the moniker of the clinic is kind of designed that way. We do have 10% of patients self-refer or come in through other patients who've been through our clinic and liked what we did.

Interviewer: Where can somebody go to get some more info on this condition and the clinic?

Dr. Ryan: Through the University of Utah Heart website, which is, and then find our dyspnea clinic through there.

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updated: September 19, 2018
originally published: February 24, 2015