Sports medicine series with Dr. Cahill: Breathing issues and sports


If you have difficulty breathing when you participate in sports or increase your activity level substantially, a sports medicine doctor is probably not be the first person you think to ask for help. But maybe it should be.

“Most people think sports medicine doctors are mostly concerned with injuries, sprains, tears, and twists. However, we also take care of a whole host of other issues related to the respiratory, cardiac, and gastrointestinal systems, and even the skin,” said Dr. Ronan Cahill, a Sports Medicine doctor at Swedish.

In July we looked at the tie between diet and sports for athletes of all ages and abilities. This month we’ll outline the causes of another common condition that you might not typically associate with sports medicine—shortness of breath.

“Shortness of breath can be an incredibly common symptom for athletes and active individuals that can sometimes be difficult to clearly diagnose and even more difficult to adequately control,” said Dr. Cahill.

Here are seven conditions that he looks for:


If you’ve ever been sidelined by an injury or accident, chances are you’ve dealt with the results of deconditioning. Deconditioning is what happens when you stop exercising or participating in athletic activities after you’ve been injured. As your activity level drops, your muscles become weaker and less efficient at utilizing oxygen, and your breathlessness increases when you start back exercising at any level.


Asthma causes wheezing, breathlessness, a tight chest, and coughing when an attack hits. The condition makes your airways tighten and swell and makes it difficult for you to breathe. Participating in sports or strenuous activity can often worsen asthma symptoms, especially when the disease is not being controlled with an inhaler.

Exercise-induced bronchospasm

When someone refers to “exercise-induced asthma,” they are usually talking about exercise-induced bronchospasm, also called exercise-induced bronchoconstriction. The condition is triggered by exercise or vigorous activity and has many of the same symptoms as asthma including shortness of breath, coughing, fatigue while exercising, chest pain or tightness, and wheezing.


Anemia is when your blood doesn’t have enough red blood cells or the red blood cells you do have don’t function the way they should. It can cause shortness of breath, dizziness, headache, chest pain, and an irregular heartbeat. Athletes with anemia may find their condition makes it difficult to compete at their highest level.

Exercise-induced laryngeal obstruction

Exercise-induced laryngeal obstruction (EILO) is when your airway narrows at or just above where your vocal cords are located when you exercise. The swollen area makes the opening that allows air to flow through your windpipe smaller than normal and causes shortness of breath and other asthma-like symptoms. The symptoms tend to stop when you stop the activity or exercise that caused them.

Primary lung disease

Lung disease that is unrelated to sports or exercise can also cause shortness of breath during increased activity. Conditions like cystic fibrosis, pneumonia, emphysema, and bronchitis can affect your lungs and their ability to perform—especially when put under stress.


Hyperthyroidism or overactive thyroid is when your thyroid gland—a small, butterfly-shaped gland in your neck—makes more thyroid hormones than your body needs. The symptoms include rapid heartbeat, heat intolerance, unexplained weight loss and shortness of breath.

Finding the root cause

It can be extremely difficult to diagnose a breathing issue, whether you are a high-performing athlete or a person that regularly remains active. In some cases, breathing issues can come on suddenly or present themselves at different times. Your sports medicine doctor can discuss your symptoms with you to find the root cause and address it.

“Shortness of breath can be an incredibly common symptom in athletes. There are many potentially serious causes that must be ruled out like heart attack, pulmonary embolism, infection, and acute asthma. However, when an athlete experiences shortness of breath that is primarily associated with athletic activity, those conditions are probably not the cause and the ones listed above are more likely,” said Dr. Cahill.

Find a doctor

If shortness of breath is keeping you from having the active lifestyle you want, a Sports Medicine doctor at Swedish can help you pinpoint the cause and develop a treatment plan that allows you to meet your fitness goals. Search for a doctor you can trust in our provider directory.

Related resources

Sports Medicine Series with Dr. Cahill: The Tie Between Diet and Sports

Tips for getting the most out of your inhalers

Preparing for marathons and half-marathons

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

About the Author

Whether you're interested in physical fitness, an athlete looking for performance tips, or it's time for a full or partial replacement of knees, shoulders or hips, the Swedish Orthopedics and Sports Medicine Team is committed to providing you with expert advice on how to prevent injury, plan for physical activity and recover from orthopedic procedures. Our mission is to help you live the active lifestyle you want.

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