Tuesday, July 8, 2008

A Patient Who is Anxious and Short of Breath

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By Linda King, M.D.
Vol 1, No. 1 - July 2001*
(Original PDF**)


Jane (not her real name), a 66 year-old woman with advanced COPD, has been hospitalized 5 times in the last six months for shortness of breath. During the current admission, she has been anxious, tearful, and stated to her nurse “I don’t know if it’s worth it anymore.” Nursing staff suggested a palliative care consultation to assist with managing Jane’s symptoms.

During her initial meeting with the palliative care team, Jane reported that she sees herself “going down hill” and is frightened of dying, specifically of suffocating. The palliative care team reviewed Jane’s recent clinical course and current medical regimen with her primary team and the other consulting teams. Given her persistent symptoms despite maximal therapy for her COPD, the palliative care team suggested a trial of opioids and benzodiazepines to manage her persistent dyspnea and associated anxiety.

Jane began taking:
oxycodone 5 mg every 4 hrs RTC (round the clock) for dyspnea
oxycodone 5mg q2 hr prn (as needed) for dyspnea
lorazepam 0.5 mg every 6hr for anxiety
and noted significant improvement. A fan was placed in her room and she continued on supplemental oxygen. A behavioral medicine specialist met with Jane and taught her relaxation techniques to use when her breathing was bothersome. With improvement in her shortness of breath, anxiety, and mood, Jane began to work with members of the palliative care team and her primary physician, as well as with representatives from social work and pastoral care, to clarify her overall goals and plans for the future.


Dyspnea is a commonly feared symptom in patients with advanced diseases affecting the lungs. Careful assessment, based on the patient’s subjective symptoms, and a thorough history and physical examination, guide management. Identifying and treating the underlying cause of the shortness of breath (pulmonary edema, bronchospasm, pleural effusion, etc.) generally provides the most effective relief. If treating the underlying cause is not possible or practical, efforts to manage the symptom itself are essential.

Oxygen, opioids, and benzodiazepines, as well as non-pharmacological interventions, represent the main strategies for controlling dyspnea. Opioids, often in lower doses than used for pain, reliably relieve dyspnea. All opioids are effective for managing dyspnea, though morphine is often used because of its low cost and ease of titration. Clinicians often fear respiratory depression when using opioids to control dyspnea, but they can be used safely and effectively when titrated carefully and followed closely. Sedation occurs well before respiratory depression and can signal a need for dose adjustment or more cautious titration.

Benzodiazepines can be safely added to opioid therapy to manage co-existing anxiety, starting at low doses and titrating to effect. Simple relaxation techniques can be easily mastered by patients and can provide a sense of control over distressing symptoms. Fresh air from an open window or fan can also provide significant relief. Patients and families should be reassured that dyspnea can be effectively controlled with the modalities discussed above.


1. Luce J, Luce J. Management of dyspnea in patients with far-advanced lung disease: “Once I lose it, it’s kind of hard to catch it…” JAMA 2001: 185:1331- 1337. doi:10.1001/jama.285.10.1331

2. Emanuel L, von Gunten C, Ferris F. Education for Physicians on End-of-Life Care (EPEC) Module 10: Common Physical Symptoms. American Medical Association, Chicago: 1999.

*Historical Cases are presented intermittently to allow for twice monthly publication on the blog.
**Slight editorial changes were made for improved readability.

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