Pathophysiological mechanisms of exertional breathlessness in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and interstitial lung disease

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Abstract

Purpose of review

Breathlessness is a common and distressing symptom in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and fibrotic interstitial lung disease (ILD), particularly during exercise. Effective medical management of exertional breathlessness in people living with COPD and fibrotic ILD is challenging for healthcare providers and requires an understanding of its mechanisms. Thus, in this brief review we summarize recent advances in our understanding of the pathophysiological mechanisms of exertional breathlessness in COPD and fibrotic ILD.

Recent findings

The collective results of recent physiological and clinical trials suggest that higher intensity ratings of exertional breathlessness in both COPD and fibrotic ILD compared to healthy control individuals is mechanistically linked to the awareness of greater neural respiratory drive (quantified using inspiratory muscle electromyography) needed to compensate for pathophysiological abnormalities in respiratory mechanics and pulmonary gas exchange efficiency.

Summary

Any therapeutic intervention capable of decreasing intrinsic mechanical loading of the respiratory system and/or increasing pulmonary gas exchange efficiency has the potential to decrease the prevalence and severity of activity-related breathlessness and improve related clinical and patient-reported outcomes (e.g., exercise tolerance and health-related quality of life) by decreasing neural respiratory drive in people with COPD and fibrotic ILD.

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