Dyspnea, more commonly known as shortness of breath, is the most common symptom of heart failure. This is often described as difficulty breathing, breathlessness, tightness in the chest, or a feeling of suffocation.
Although shortness of breath could indicate a variety of medical conditions — from something as normal as tiredness from strenuous exercise to something more serious such as heart or lung condition - it is important not to ignore the symptom, especially if you experience them long-term and persistently.
Oftentimes, shortness of breath could indicate a potentially serious heart condition. It could signal a heart issue when it seems to progressively worsen, from occurring during physical exertion to happening even at rest. It may also occur when you lay flat on your back.
Other accompanying symptoms could be:
In these cases, it is important to seek medical attention immediately as these could be signs of heart failure or pulmonary embolism.
You should also seek medical attention if you are out of breath much sooner than you used to be after exercise or strenuous physical activity, or if you experience breathlessness without any explanation.
Some heart problems that cause shortness of breath are, but are not limited to:
Apart from taking a detailed clinical history and physical examination the primary methods of evaluating shortness of breath are through an electrocardiogram (ECG) and a chest X-ray. These are quick and inexpensive tests that provide your cardiologist with a baseline diagnosis to confirm or exclude certain diagnoses.
An electrocardiogram (ECG) can detect abnormalities in your heart’s rate and rhythm. This helps your doctor determine whether there is a problem related to the electrical activity in the heart.
A chest X-ray can help identify any structural abnormalities within your chest that may be causing the dyspnea such as fractures or masses. It can also show an increase in the cardiac silhouette caused by the thickening of the heart muscles.
Other tests may also be carried out by your cardiologist for a comprehensive diagnosis like:
Treatment for dyspnea ultimately depends on the underlying condition causing the symptom in the first place, making accurate diagnosis crucial.
It’s important to take breathlessness seriously as it could be indicative of a serious cardiac issue. Fortunately, with current diagnostic tools and good communication, there are high chances of diagnosing and treating the problem.
If you experience shortness of breath, take note of when it occurs, how often it occurs and other related symptoms. This would help your cardiologist better understand and diagnose your condition. Early detection is key!
Dr Devinder Singh is the Medical Director of Cadence Heart Centre. He is an experienced Senior Consultant Cardiologist & Cardiac Electrophysiologist with over 20 years of clinical experience.
His expertise lies in clinical cardiology, cardiac rhythm disorders (arrhythmia), cardiac pacing (including cardiac resynchronisation therapy) and cardiac magnetic resonance imaging. He performs electrophysiology studies and radiofrequency ablation of cardiac arrhythmias, and is well versed in pacemaker and deﬁbrillator insertions.
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