Whether you are a weekend warrior, trained athlete or like to go for a walk after dinner, an essential element to these activities is being able to breathe well.
When we breathe, the air travels through the larynx (voice box), down the trachea (windpipe) and into the lungs. In the lungs, there is an exchange of clean air for used air. The used air is exhaled up and out through the nose or mouth.
Certain lung problems can make it difficult to breathe while exercising. One of the most common problems is asthma, a chronic lung condition. The airways are constricted and inflamed, making it hard to breathe. Some people experience asthma only during exercise, and this is called exercise-induced asthma. Another problem some people have with breathing is often misdiagnosed as asthma. When we breathe in, the vocal folds open wide to let the air travel through them. They remain open when we breathe out. The vocal folds, which make the sound of the voice, close only when we talk, clear our throats, cough or hold our breath. They should not close while we are trying to breathe.
In some people, the vocal folds close almost all the way when they try to breathe in. This is called paradoxical vocal fold motion, or vocal cord dysfunction. The person experiences tightness in the throat and feels as if he can't get in any air. There might be a noisy sound, called stridor, when they breathe in. The harder the person tries to inhale, the more tightly the vocal folds close.
Many people with this problem have the attacks during physical activity. Others are triggered by stress or environmental triggers, such as certain odors or extreme heat and humidity. Often they have been told they have asthma but find they don't get a lot of relief from the treatment for asthma.
This vocal cord dysfunction is often diagnosed by an otolaryngologist (an ear, nose and throat specialist), a pulmonologist (a lung specialist) or an allergist. Speech-language pathologists help the patient determine what the triggers are and can teach simple breathing exercises to control this and eliminate the attacks. Once the person learns how to control the movement of the vocal folds, they can resume physical activity and avoid further attacks.