Most of us have felt short of breath at some time in our life. Maybe we climbed several flights of stairs too quickly or suddenly realized we had left a pan on the stove. Physical exertion and panic are common reasons for shortness of breath. But the symptom, which doctors call dyspnea, can also signal a problem with the heart.
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“In essence, it’s a symptom that tells you your heart may not be adequately moving blood through your lungs and out to your body,” says cardiologist Michael Faulx, MD.
What it might mean
Shortness of breath can occur from several different heart problems.
If one of your heart valves becomes diseased and is unable to function properly, you may become short of breath. The symptom worsens as the disease progresses. It’s also a common symptom in atrial fibrillation, when the heart beats too fast to adequately fill and eject enough blood with each beat. This can lead to higher pressures in the heart and lungs, which can leave you feeling short of breath.
Shortness of breath can be a sign you’re having a heart attack or have developed a sudden case of heart failure. In these cases, you may be breathing normally one minute and become severely short of breath the next.
It’s also common in patients with heart failure with preserved ejection fraction whose blood pressure or heart rate is not well controlled. “These hearts pump well, but
are stiff. The pressure inside the heart rises when it’s trying to fill with blood, and it backs up the circulation in the lungs,” Dr. Faulx explains.
When you should worry
According to Dr. Faulx, any degree of shortness of breath that concerns you should be evaluated by a physician.
“You know your body better than anyone else. If you become worried about the symptom, your breathing becomes unpleasantly heavy or you start experiencing shortness of breath with daily activity, see a doctor. “As a rule of thumb, you should be concerned when your shortness of breath is out of proportion to what you would expect for your age or activity level. And definitely take it seriously if you get short of breath when you lie down to sleep, or if you awaken at night with difficulty breathing,” he says.
This article originally appeared in Cleveland Clinic Heart Advisor.