Young Athletes Face Asthma Copycat

During a soccer game, your child experiences shortness of breath. The symptoms last for ten minutes, but the incident leaves you both frightened and searching for answers. Commonly misdiagnosed as asthma, vocal cord dysfunction or VCD often appears in young athletes.

“Those affected get ‘air hungry’ which scares them to death,” says Ashley Leadbetter-Davis, speech language pathologist with Meritus Health’s Total Rehab Care. VCD happens most frequently during inhalation. A shortness of breath occurs when vocal cords close together and leave only a small opening for air to flow into the windpipe.

Ashley Leadbetter-Davis
Ashley Leadbetter-Davis

Causes of vocal cord dysfunction

The cause of VCD is a focus of current research, but some suggested causes include: spasms in the upper larynx due to reflux or other environmental factors; a disruption in the respiratory system; diseases such as multiple sclerosis or Parkinson’s; and strong emotions, stress or exercise often present in high-performing adolescents. The condition occurs in just four percent of the population, but literature suggests that it’s under or misdiagnosed.

Symptoms and targets

While asthma attacks occur for longer periods, VCD lasts five to ten minutes. Young athletes report a tightness in their throat, shortness of breath and noisy breathing. Ashley often sees the condition present in boys and girls between the ages of 10-18 who are competitive in sports and school.

“The level of activity and the drive to compete brings on VCD symptoms in these young, elite athletes,” explains Ashley. “And the stress of ‘when will this happen again?’ adds to anxiety.”

Reaching a diagnosis

Because VCD and asthma symptoms are similar, athletes are often put on inhalers which don’t address their symptoms. The lack of relief increases the athletes’ anxiety which heightens the condition. In most cases, VCD is diagnosed by a medical team including an otolaryngologist or ENT and a pulmonologist. Not addressing VCD can lead to a habitual pattern of dysfunctional breathing or spasms, especially during stressful situations.

Speech therapy for VCD patients

Speech therapists focus treatments on respiratory control and deep breathing patterns. “We get patients to recognize their stress and calm their breathing ratios to prevent, reduce and control VCD symptoms,” says Ashley. She shows her patients how VCD occurs and gives them breathing methods to use during stressful situations.

A former Broadway musical performer, Ashley specializes in voice disorders. After completing a master’s degree in speech pathology from Loyola University of Maryland, Ashley finished a clinical fellowship in voice disorders at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

If your child suffers from shortness of breath, talk to your primary care physician about possible causes including vocal cord dysfunction.