Patient Handout for Tips for Shortness of Breath

Tips for Shortness of Breath

Breathing Techniques

Diaphragmatic Breathing

The diaphragm is a muscle found below the lungs in your chest. It is most commonly known for hiccups, which are spasms in the diaphragm. The diaphragm rises and drops to push air into and out of the lungs. Diaphragmatic breathing involves pushing the belly outward with every breath in and inward with every breath out. If you make the belly movements as dramatic as possible, it will help with shortness of breath.

Pursed Lip Breathing

Pursed lip breathing is a breathing technique that helps you pace yourself and gain control of your breaths. It involves breathing inward through the nose like you are smelling a flower, and breathing outward through the mouth like you are blowing out birthday candles. These breaths in and out should be as deep and big as possible. If you don’t breath out enough, this can cause you to hyperventilate, so make sure that the breaths in and out are even.

*Use the diaphragmatic and pursed lip breathing techniques together (at the same time) for best results. (Try to diaphragmatic breathe as much as possible, but only take 6-8 breaths with the pursed lip breathing.)

Mental Concentration

When you feel short of breath and begin to use the breathing techniques listed above. Concentrate your mind simply on breathing. It may help you to think “breath in, breath out” or focusing on your belly or the warmth of the breaths on your upper lip.


The two best positions to be in when feeling short of breaths are:

  1. Laying on your back
  2. Leaning forward in a seated position with arms on lap or rested on table in front of you

*Leaning forward (sitting or standing) helps to lessen the use of what are called accessory muscles for breathing, which makes breathing easier.


Talk with your doctor before beginning an exercise program. However, exercising on a regular basis at a doctor approved level can help strengthen the muscles that are used during breathing, improve the lungs’ ability to take in/ process oxygen, and strengthens the heart, which pumps oxygen in the blood to the rest of the body.

Energy Conservation Techniques

When feeling short of breath (or before you’re short of breath if you have warning signs) it could be helpful to use energy conservation techniques, since these techniques take less effort from the muscles used for breathing and help keep the breathing and heart rates down. Some of these techniques are listed below:

  • Do everything slower
  • Do activities that don’t put a lot of resistance on the body, such as lifting heavy things
  • Try to use fewer muscles in the body, especially the bigger ones, such as the muscles in the stomach, legs, and arms
  • Try not to raise your arms over your head or above the heart
  • Try not to do work or activities that require you to do the same things over and over again
  • Use legs and lower body instead of arm and upper body when possible
  • Sit during activities or chores when possible
  • Avoid extreme temperatures, high humidity, and pollution
    • Bathing or showering can be the most frequent place where people feel short of breath, because of the humidity. Some suggestions for preventing this are turning water off when not needed in shower, keeping the door open or cracked, or using an exhaust fan in the bathroom.
  • Manage time as well as possible (plan things out before you do them)
  • Do things in lists or clusters when possible.
    • For example, do everything you need to do in the kitchen when you’re in the kitchen instead of walking back and for between rooms to get everything done. Time management and planning chores out before you do them will help with this.
  • Take breaks as often as you need them.
  • Make sure that you have a chair that’s easy to get to in all rooms of your house that you go into most often, in case you need to sit down quickly.
    • If you start feeling, dizzy or light headed, sit or lay down as soon as possible.


Migliore, A. (2004). Case Report—Improving dyspnea management in three adults with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 58, 639–646.

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