How is the severity of breathing problems in a cancer patient measured?

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AndrewPutnamMD (Physician - Hospice / Palliative Care (Verified) ) - 12 / 12 / 2013

The key difference here is between 1) dyspnea (uncomfortable breathing) and 2) low oxygen levels in the blood. A person can feel comfortable even with a blood oxygen level of 70% or even lower (Normal: 96% - 100% depending on the person). On the other hand a person can feel very short of breath even if their blood oxygen level is 100%. The feeling of shortness of breath must be treated for the patient’s comfort, even with a normal blood oxygen level. Observers should NOT say that it is “all in the person’s head”. They are uncomfortable and should be helped.


The main measurement is the number of breaths per minute. Normal resting respirations for most people is around 12 per minute while awake and 8 – 10 while asleep. If a person is having troubles breathing, that rate can increase to as high as 45 breaths per minute or even higher.


Another visible sign of respiratory difficulties is the “use of accessory muscles” to aid breathing. These are muscles in the neck and shoulders that usually move very little with breathing. When uncomfortable, or having trouble getting enough oxygen, a person may use these muscles (often unintentionally) to improve breathing. The patient may or may not be comfortable while using these muscles.

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