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MS and Breathing Problems

By Matt Cavallo

Do you have multiple sclerosis and suffer from breathing problems? While it is not as common as symptoms like numbness, tingling, blurry vision and difficulties walking, breathing problems do occur with people living with MS.

Before you read on, if you are currently experiencing problems breathing it is critical to call your doctor right away. Breathing problems can be caused by any number of reasons, like bronchitis, pneumonia, allergies or some other problem, making it imperative that you seek medical treatment to assess your current condition.

Just like your heartbeat, your breathing is a controlled by your autonomic nervous system. Your ANS are functions that happen automatically and do not require conscious decisions to manage. In other words, you do not have to think to breathe.

MS is not commonly thought to affect your ANS. However, the muscles that control breathing can be affected by MS. This means that just like MS symptoms may cause weakness in the arms or legs, weakness can occur with the muscles of respiration in your chest or abdomen that control breathing. If MS causes weakness with the muscles of respiration, then inhaling and exhaling can become more difficult to do. The extra effort needed to breathe can be tiring and lead to increased fatigue.

Breathing can also affect your ability to speak. If you have ever tried to talk after running or exercising, you know how hard it can be to talk if you can’t catch your breath. If you are struggling to breath because of weakness caused by MS, then you are probably experiencing impaired speech, as well. In addition to speech, if you are having difficulty swallowing because of MS then you are at risk for aspiration pneumonia. Aspiration pneumonia is when food, liquid, or other particles are accidentally inhaled into your lungs and become infected.

Problems with breathing can include shortness of breath, inability to take deep breaths, sleep apnea, frequent coughing or excessive hiccupping, or sighing. Many people living with MS report having the MS Hug which is pain or tightness in the chest. Those who experience the MS Hug may experience difficulties breathing because of the pain and tightness in the chest.

What do you do if you are experiencing breathing problems? Here are five strategies to help manage overall lung function with MS.
  1. Seek medical treatment right away. Whether it is with your doctor, urgent care, or the ER, if you are having breathing problems you need to seek medical treatment right away.
  2.  Ask your doctor about available treatments. If this is a chronic, or recurring problem, there may be treatments available to help. Whether it is a nebulizer, inhaler, CPAP machine, or some other breathing aide, there are treatments available today to provide relief.
  3. Get a referral for a respiratory therapist. Many people don’t know this, but RTs work on the outpatient space providing pulmonary evaluations. An outpatient RT can develop a plan of care, including breathing exercises, to improve overall lung function.
  4. Get a referral to a speech language pathologist. If your problems with breathing is related to your difficulty swallowing or is affecting your ability to talk, then seek a SLP swallow study or evaluation. An SLP can develop a plan of care with compensatory strategies for swallowing and speaking that may help with your breathing problem.
  5. Stop smoking. While it goes without saying, smoking increases your risk of not only breathing problems, but also can increase MS activity. Quitting smoking is the most difficult thing that you may do in life, but can be that decision can help you not only with breathing, but your overall quality of life with MS.

While breathing is controlled automatically by your ANS, complications due to muscle weakness and MS can affect your breathing. When you feel like you can’t catch your breath, it dramatically affects your overall quality of life. Don’t worry, you are not alone. Doctors, respiratory therapists, and speech language pathologists are among the dedicated clinical professionals that can help. Whether it is through treatment, breathing exercises or a smoking cessation program, take advantage of every available resource so that you can breathe again.