If it is difficult for us to breathe, it is not uncommon for classic respiratory diseases such as flu or pneumonia to be behind the problem. However, these are not the only health problems that can theoretically cause breathing difficulties. What is more, the causes of such complaints do not necessarily have to be found in a respiratory illness.
Table of Contents
- Breathing problems – shortness of breath
- How does our breathing work?
- Definition of breathing difficulties
- Respiratory diseases as the main cause of breathing difficulties
- Upper respiratory tract disorders
- Lower respiratory tract disorders
- Special case: respiratory tumors
- Difficulty breathing and heart disease
- Breathing problems due to muscular and skeletal disorders
- Paralysis of the diaphragm
- Skeletal anomalies
- Relationship between psyche and breathing difficulties
- Everyday stress, anxiety disorders and panic attacks
- Accompanying symptoms of respiratory problems
- Diagnosis of breathing problems
- Therapy for breathing difficulties
- Herbal therapy
- Surgical treatment
- physical therapy
- Home remedies for breathing difficulties
- Treatment for psychological causes
How does our breathing work?
In order to understand how breathing difficulties can develop in detail, one has to take a closer look at the respiratory function of the lungs (pulmo). This is primarily generated by the respiratory muscles, which are located in the chest and, through appropriate muscle contractions, causes the lungs to expand and relax. The most important respiratory muscle in this regard is the diaphragm located below the lungs . By repeatedly expanding and contracting again, it increases or decreases the lung volume at regular intervals and thus creates the mechanism of breathing in and out.
When inhaled (inspiration) the chest expands and the lungs expand, when exhaled (expiration) it contracts again. (Image: Alila Medical Media / fotolia.com)
The function of the diaphragm is supported by the so-called respiratory muscles . This can be divided into two main muscle groups:
- Inspirationalmuscles – these muscles are needed for inspiration
- Expiratorymuscles – these muscles are required for exhalation
Like the diaphragm, the auxiliary breathing muscles are located in the chest and are stimulated to contract muscles by nerve signals. The signals come from the brain’s own breathing center , which acts as a clock for the breathing intervals, so to speak.
If the signal line between the respiratory center and the respiratory muscles works properly, between 17,000 and 20,000 breaths are taken every day. Fresh, oxygen-rich air is transported through the trachea into the finely branched bronchial system of the lungs. Are the indispensable for further transport of oxygen in it alveoli (alveoli), the ends of which open into the lung’s own blood vessels. The oxygen absorbed by the alveoli is distributed through the blood vessels throughout the body. Exhausted air leaves the body later on exhaling in the same way.
Definition of breathing difficulties
All kinds of a disturbed respiratory function are now referred to as respiratory problems, which arise either from a disturbed signal line or loss of function of the respiratory muscles or the lungs. The complaints in particular include shortness of breath (dyspnea), which describes persistent shortness of breath due to impaired breathing. In the course of shortness of breath, the oxygen intake of the lungs is reduced, which consequently also impairs the adequate oxygen supply to the body.
Depending on the existing underlying disease shortness of breath may also be the preliminary stage of lung failure and thus an imminent respiratory arrest announce (apnea). This is especially the case with very severe lung diseases, airway blockages (e.g. foreign body blocks) and lung injuries. A special form of respiratory arrest is the so-called sleep apnea , which describes the symptoms of periodic breathing difficulties or breathing interruptions during sleep.
Respiratory diseases as the main cause of breathing difficulties
It is obvious that respiratory diseases lead to a large part of respiratory problems. The spectrum ranges from harmless infections of the respiratory tract to chronic diseases to tumor diseases in the respiratory tract. For a better overview, a distinction is made between diseases of the upper and lower respiratory tract.
In most cases, respiratory problems are the reason for the complaints. (Image: RFBSIP / fotolia.com)
Upper respiratory tract disorders
The upper airways include the mouth, nose and throat, and the larynx, which forms the boundary between the upper and lower airways. As a result of illnesses, mostly bacterial, viral or allergic inflammations, but also in the course of injuries, the mucous membranes can swell strongly in this area. The swelling of the mucous membranes usually leads to a narrowing of the airways (obstruction), so that only very small amounts of air can flow into the lungs or be exhaled.
In severe cases, the swelling takes on such extreme proportions that the airways become completely blocked and the respiratory complaints culminate in acute shortness of breath or even respiratory arrest. Typical clinical pictures that cause corresponding restrictions in breathing are:
- Allergic runny nose
- allergic reactions of the upper respiratory tract in general
- Pseudo croup
- Sore throat
- Injuries caused by penetrating foreign bodies
- Obstruction from strangulation
Attention: Regardless of the cause, the situation of acute shortness of breath is life-threatening and urgently and urgently requires medical attention.
Lower respiratory tract disorders
The lower respiratory tract, i.e. the areas below the larynx to the alveoli, are most often affected by descending infections or chronic diseases. Descending infections from the upper respiratory tract primarily result in swelling of the mucous membrane , which leads to breathing difficulties. In addition, the immune system tries to catapult the invaded pathogens and foreign substances out of the body through the formation of mucus. The mucus produced sits in the bronchi and is transported to the upper respiratory tract with coughing strokes.
Often, however, the stuck mucus cannot be coughed up completely due to its persistence and the weakness of the patient, it remains in place and thus leads to further breathing problems. The reason for this is the fact that the alveoli filled with mucus can no longer completely guarantee gas exchange. The feeling of not getting enough air increases even more for the patient in this scenario, since there is a decrease in the oxygen content in the blood (hypoxia). The following diseases are often associated with such breathing disorders:
- lung infection
- chronic obstructive pulmonary disease(COPD)
- bronchial asthma
In asthma patients, the breathing difficulties occur like a fit and often also at night. (Image: RFBSIP / fotolia.com)
Special case: respiratory tumors
Mucosal, supporting tissue and glandular cells of the respiratory tract can sometimes also develop tissue degeneration. To make matters worse, the lungs are particularly at risk when it comes to tumor diseases, since the inhaled air can also cause numerous cell-damaging pollutants to enter the cell tissue. Among other things, the risk of cell degeneration is increased by:
- Cigarette smoke
- Environmental pollutants
- Industrial pollutants
- Traffic fumes
- Pollutants in the living area
The tricky thing about tumor diseases in the area of the lungs is that degeneracies remain undetected for a long time and can easily spread unhindered in the cell tissue. For this reason too, breathing difficulties and a long-lasting cough after surviving infections should not be rated as harmless, but should be seen by the doctor in a timely manner.
Difficulty breathing and heart disease
Heart disease can sometimes cause breathing problems. The cause of this is a weak heart in the pump due to a loss of performance due to illness. This results in a backflow of the blood to be pumped into the lungs, which means that it can no longer develop fully and the gas exchange is consequently impeded. Classical signs of such a breathing impairment are:
- Shortness of breath when stressed (later also when at rest)
- dry, unproductive cough
- cold sweat
- Chest tightness (possibly also associated with pain)
There are many causes of a weak heart. For example, cardiac infections such as pericarditis or myocarditis can be responsible for the symptoms. In these diseases, pathogens that have spread to the heart due to pre-inflammation are often identified as the originators.
Congenital heart valve defects or heart failure are also possible triggers for heart-related breathing difficulties . In addition to the problems with breathing, there are also clear cardiac arrhythmias. The situation is similar with acquired heart and vascular diseases such as high blood pressure or the extremely insidious coronary heart disease . The diseases not only mean an enormous burden on the lungs, but also increase the risk of a heart attack .
In this context, existing overweight should also be mentioned . Not only does the excess pounds press on the chest and thus make breathing difficult, obesity also favors the development of heart diseases that further impair breathing.
Caution: If the blood backlog remains untreated, pulmonary edema can occur. It describes the filling of the alveoli with tissue water from the backlog of blood. Lung vesicles filled with liquid can no longer carry out the gas exchange necessary for breathing. The result is a lack of oxygen, which can become a critical situation for the whole body.
A monotonous sitting posture can cause muscle tension and consequently breathing problems. (Image: Jeanette Dietl / fotolia.com)
Breathing problems due to muscular and skeletal disorders
As already shown at the beginning, the muscles required for breathing can also be responsible. Furthermore, there are some diseases of the skeleton in the chest area that cannot be excluded as the cause of the impaired breathing. A still comparatively harmless variant are muscle tension in the area of the cervical and thoracic spine. For example, they occur in the frame
- excessive physical activity,
- monotonous sitting posture or
- as a result of vertebral blockages or herniated discs
and can lead to poor posture and associated incorrect breathing if the location is poor. However, there are also more serious muscle and skeletal complaints, which should be considered in association with breathing difficulties:
Paralysis of the diaphragm
Paralysis of the diaphragm is significantly less harmless, since this is usually caused by more serious disease complexes. The causes of paralysis of the diaphragm (diaphragmatic paresis) are cramps, damage or failures of the phrenic nerve, which controls the diaphragm. Conceivable as a trigger, for example, a preceding is lockjaw as it occurs among others in tetanus.
Tumor diseases, inflammation and neuromuscular diseases such as muscle loss , multiple sclerosis (MS) or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) cannot be ruled out as the cause of paralysis of the diaphragm. Even virus diseases such as herpes zoster can theoretically cause one.
Important: If the diaphragm completely fails as a respiratory muscle due to paralysis, approximately two thirds of the respiratory volume is no longer adequately moved because the lungs can no longer expand and fill with air. This sometimes results in serious breathing difficulties that can take on life-threatening proportions.
Regardless of whether congenital or acquired as a result of an accident, changes in the skeletal system, especially in the chest area, can always lead to breathing difficulties if the chest cannot raise and lower sufficiently due to anomalies. Particularly common causes in this connection are deformations of the spine, such as those caused by congenital scoliosis . Breast injuries due to traffic accidents also provoke breathing problems.
Relationship between psyche and breathing difficulties
A classic example of psychological cause in the context of breathing difficulties is hyperventilation . Often triggered by external influences, such as receiving bad news, fear of exams or experiencing a traumatic situation immediately, the hyperventilating person temporarily has an increased breathing rate. At the same time, those affected have the feeling that they are not getting enough air.
This feeling is caused by a shift in the concentration of blood gases (oxygen and carbon dioxide) as a result of increased and too deep breathing. As a result, too much oxygen is absorbed, but at the same time too much carbon dioxide is exhaled. The breathing in a bag often shown in the film can actually help here. As a result, the person affected resumes his own carbon dioxide and a balance of the blood gases can be restored.
Important: Hyperventilation can quickly worsen to an emergency situation, since the body tries to restore the imbalances using various regulatory mechanisms. There can be a shift in the pH value in the blood, which can lead to a coma without medical attention.
A well-known first aid measure for acute hyperventilation is breathing back into a bag. However, this may only be used if there is no serious physical illness. (Image: estradaanton / fotolia.com)
Everyday stress, anxiety disorders and panic attacks
Acute stress not only favors the development of heart diseases. Independent breathing difficulties are also conceivable as an accompanying complaint of everyday stress or mental stress. Because time pressure, suppressed feelings, unprocessed traumas and loss experiences affect the world of thoughts and feelings, they can also express themselves in physical signals, which include exhaustion , increased irritability and forgetfulness as well as breathing problems. The symptom often occurs when it is actually about experiencing, evaluating and processing experiences.
People with this type of health complaint can often be turned upside down by a doctor and are often disappointed if they are unable to find a physical cause and instead suspect a stressful load , anxiety or panic disorder . These health problems are still not classified as real diseases in society. However, our body and soul are a firmly connected unit and psychological or mental health damage always affects physical health. One should therefore consider possible psychosomatic factors as well as tangible, physical previous illnesses in breathing problems.
Accompanying symptoms of respiratory problems
The accompanying complaints, which can occur in the context of impaired breathing, are heavily dependent on the underlying disease. Respiratory diseases, for example, often become noticeable through breathing noises and cold symptoms such as rough throat, cough, hoarseness and runny nose .
Cardiac diseases, on the other hand, are mostly noticeable due to cardiac arrhythmias, fluctuations in blood pressure , exhaustion and reduced performance. In addition to fatigue, stress is shown above all by mood swings and cognitive disorders.
With respiratory diseases, cold symptoms such as cough, runny nose and a dry throat usually appear in parallel. (Image: RFBSIP / fotolia.com)
Diagnosis of breathing problems
A first suspicion usually arises during the determination of breathing difficulties as soon as the doctor listens to the lungs. Breathing noises, sudden coughing attacks or a lack of strength when inhaling and exhaling provide the first clues. Afterwards, special lung function tests can give more precise details. If an inflammation or infection is the obvious cause, smears and blood tests also help to identify any pathogens and inflammatory secretions.
Diagnostic imaging methods such as CT, MRI or X-ray can also be of great help when examining respiratory problems. This applies in particular to the determination of tumor and heart diseases, which can usually be identified by abnormal tissue changes.
Therapy for breathing difficulties
The treatment of respiratory complaints is based on the underlying cause. In this regard, medicinal and medicinal plant therapy measures as well as home remedies and operative steps are available:
In the case of bacterial infections of the respiratory tract, antibiotic therapy is often essential to prevent the pathogens from being carried over. Preparations such as penicillin, clarithromycin or amoxicillin help to successfully destroy microbial pathogens and prevent the infection from descending into the lower respiratory tract.
Asthma patients and patients with COPD are often treated in long-term therapy with airway expanding drugs. This is usually done through the regular use of inhalation sprays. These sprays contain active ingredients that expand the airways (bronchodilators) and inhibit inflammation (corticoids).
For patients with heart disease as the cause of the breathing difficulties, another medicinal treatment regimen is possible, which is often used in a combination of several preparations. Cardiac glycosides such as digitalis or beta blockers such as metoprolol to increase heart strength are conceivable. Diuretics (e.g. Lasix) are often used to reduce blood volume. Antihypertensives such as ramipril are also available to lower blood pressure.
In the field of medicinal herbs in particular, there are numerous helpers for the treatment of respiratory complaints. Depending on their respective ingredients, these achieve very different healing effects. Herbs such as peppermint, lemon balm and sage are known for their anti-inflammatory and disinfectant effects. Thyme is a good expectorant. Eucalyptus and Echinacea are also known for their antitussive, expectorant and airway-relieving properties.
The medicinal plants can either be prepared for a healing tea, steam bath or medicinal bath or purchased directly as lozenges, drops or tablet additives in the pharmacy.
A tea with peppermint is anti-inflammatory and disinfectant. (Image: oxie99 / fotolia.com)
A good tip is also the so-called phyto- aromatherapy for respiratory complaints . Special herbs and resins are heated in a smoker or warmer so that the healing agents are released into the air and then reach the airways through inhalation. The well-known myrrh is particularly suitable for this. The resin, which is known to many from ritual incense, also has a very good effect against respiratory diseases and breathing problems. Other herbs recommended for treatment are:
- Ribwort plantain
- Licorice root
Important: Especially chronic sick people and allergy sufferers should be careful when using medicinal herbs, especially as an additive in inhalations or steam baths. Often they do not tolerate every medicinal herb and only react with an intensification of the symptoms.
Difficulty breathing caused by skeletal anomalies can often only be remedied by correcting the malposition. This is necessary, for example, in the course of scoliosis. However, it should be mentioned that a detailed benefit-risk analysis should be carried out in advance with the doctor, since this is a major back surgery with high potential for complications.
Similar risk assessments are also important if surgical treatment focuses on a nerve or tumor disorder. In both cases, the individual health status of the patient and the benefits of an operation must be assessed in advance in order to be able to say whether a surgical intervention is worthwhile or not.
Physiotherapeutic measures are not only important in rehabilitative physiotherapy after an operation. Muscular breathing difficulties can also be treated very easily by a physiotherapist or osteopath with little effort. Appropriate courses can be used, among other things, to correct posture errors, relieve tension and strengthen weakened muscles.
It is important, however, that appropriate measures are taken in aftercare to prevent the blockages from recurring. This includes, among other things, maintaining a healthy posture while sitting down and building good back muscles.
Home remedies for breathing difficulties
When it comes to inhalations, chronically ill people in particular are often prescribed a special electric steam inhaler by their doctor. You can easily prepare a suitable steam bath yourself with the herbs mentioned above at home. Performing it for about 10 minutes (depending on your well-being) 3-4 times a day then helps to loosen the stuck mucus and to transport it out with coughing thrusts.
Breathing problems often go away when some lifestyle changes. (Image: heilpraxisnet.de)
Heart patients, on the other hand, have a harder time. In the first place, your illness can only be treated with medication and there is also no one short-term measure that can be carried out for relief or healing. However, the person affected can still take a number of measures, which ultimately aim at a long-term change in lifestyle.
Appropriate lifestyle changes are also recommended for stress patients and include, above all, a healthy diet. This should be rich in vitamins, minerals and fiber, which includes a generous consumption of fruits, vegetables and cereals. In the case of heart diseases in particular, such a diet may also aim to reduce weight in order to relieve the chest and thus the respiratory tract and respiratory muscles. Combined with regular exercise, the immune system can be wonderfully strengthened and possible respiratory infections and heart infections prevented.
A stress reduction is also used for the successful treatment of respiratory complaints with cardiac and stress. Everyday life should be planned without stress and ideally combined with regular relaxation phases. Participation in courses in yoga , Reiki or autogenic training can be very useful here.
If there is pollution as a cause of breathing difficulties, it is also important in everyday life to provide adequate protection for the respiratory tract. People who work in a smoky or polluted environment must wear a face mask under all circumstances. Cigarette smoke should also be avoided.
Treatment for psychological causes
If there are unprocessed trauma as the reason for the breathing problems, it is advisable to consider talk therapy. Also fear – and panic disorder can be well received with talk and behavioral therapies to grips nowadays. Hypnotherapy , in which phobic behavior is neutralized through subconscious conditioning , has become particularly popular in this regard . In addition, however, there should always be a targeted confrontation with everyday situations that trigger fear or panic, if only because the real test only shows whether phobias persist or slowly disappear.
Tip: Support groups for therapeutic treatment are also highly recommended. Here, like-minded patients can share their experiences and help each other to deal with their problems.
Diseases of breathing difficulties: flu, bronchitis, sore throat, tonsillitis, pneumonia, allergies, COPD, asthma, obstruction, muscle tension, paralysis of the diaphragm, heart failure, heart valve defects, myocardial weakness, coronary artery disease, stress.