Shortness of breath is associated with a variety of conditions including lung diseases, such as pulmonary fibrosis. In people with PF, scar tissue develops in the air sacs of the lungs. The scarring makes the lungs stiff and interferes with getting oxygen in and distributed throughout the bloodstream, which often leads to shortness of breath.
Some people may notice shortness of breath only during exertion, such as while exercising or doing household chores. For others, breathlessness may occur more frequently.
If you experience shortness of breath, you might feel a tightness in your chest or feel you cannot get enough air in. The sensation is not only uncomfortable, but it can also be frightening. It’s common for breathlessness to lead to anxiety. But being anxious can make breathing even worse.
What may happen is you start to avoid activities that you think may lead to shortness of breath. As you do less, your muscles may weaken, and that leads to even more shortness of breath from deconditioning. The good news is there are things you can do to ease shortness of breath and decrease anxiety.
Prioritizing, Pacing and Planning
Energy conservation is acknowledging that you have a set amount of energy to get through each day or week and planning ahead to conserve energy for the things that are most important to you. Conserving energy may be asking for help in tasks you previously managed, doing chores at a slower pace with breaks or completing activities such as blow drying hair, putting on makeup or folding laundry while sitting down rather than standing up.
It makes sense to stop doing certain activities if they leave you breathless. For example, if you don’t like mowing the grass and get breathless, consider having someone else do that chore.
Prioritizing what you think you should do and what you want to do is important. Getting help doing certain things such as cooking or cleaning may allow you to spend your energy doing the things that are important to you such as attending a birthday party for a friend.
If the activity is something you enjoy, it might be possible to use strategies to prevent shortness of breath while still doing what you love. For instance, learning to pace yourself can be helpful. Breaking activities into manageable steps can make the difference between becoming breathless or not. Whether you’re trying to get through a trip to the grocery store, a walk with your dog or making the bed, pacing yourself may involve slowing down or taking breaks as you need. Rushing is the enemy of breath control.
Listen to your body and stop to rest when you first sense you need to. Trying to rush through an activity even when you feel breathless can leave you gasping. The goal is to complete the activity without becoming too out of breath. You want to stay in control and not have shortness of breath control you.
Plan what you want to get done in a day, but be realistic. Some things may need to wait. Plan rest times in between activities. Also, consider the time of the day you tend to have the most energy and plan to complete tasks or activities during that time.
Using certain breathing techniques may also be helpful in preventing or decreasing shortness of breath. For example, pursed lip breathing is often recommended for people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Although the disease process is different, pursed lip breathing may also be useful for people with PF. It can slow your breathing and help you relax.
Pursed Lip Breathing
Watch a video demonstration of pursed lipped breathing here.
To do pursed lip breathing:
- Inhale through you nose for about two seconds.
- Exhale through pursed lips. Pucker as if you were going to blow out candles on a cake.
- Breath out slowly for a count of about four seconds.
Diaphragmatic or Belly Breathing
Diaphragmatic or belly breathing may also be useful for people with pulmonary fibrosis. Diaphragmatic breathing is just what it sounds like. It involves engaging the diaphragm with each breath and breathing deep into the belly. Watch a video demonstration of diaphragmatic breathing here.
To do diaphragmatic breathing:
- Put one hand on your stomach and the other on your chest.
- Inhale slowly through you nose.
- As you inhale, your stomach should rise even more than your chest.
- As you exhale, you should feel your stomach move inward.
Content written by Dr. Jeremy Feldman, an expert in Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis, with contributions by MaryAnn DePietro, B.S. CRT, a licensed respiratory therapist.