Breathing Problems

Breathing is controlled by the autonomic nervous system (or automatic nervous system), a part of the CNS responsible for bodily processes that function without conscious thought, such as breathing or beating of the heart. Since the autonomic nervous system is typically not affected by MS, breathing problems caused by nerve damage are rare.

However, just as MS can cause the muscles of the legs and arms to weaken, it can also cause a progressive weakening of the muscles used in breathing or respiration. Complications from weakness of respiratory muscles can become a significant problem in people with advanced MS who have lost mobility and contribute to an increased risk for pneumonia.

There is evidence that respiration may be impaired even in people who are in the early stages of MS and who are fully mobile. Therefore, it’s recommended that breathing training, including techniques such as diaphragmatic breathing, deep breathing, and incentive spirometry exercises, be included in a regular exercise routine for people with MS, regardless of the stage of the disease.

Breathing evaluation

Because people with MS are at risk for breathing problems, even if they are at an early stage of the disease, a baseline breathing evaluation should be done early after diagnosis to establish how well a person is breathing. Further evaluations should be done every 1 to 3 years after diagnosis to see if breathing capacity has decreased and problems have developed.

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Aspiration of food particles

People with MS, especially those with swallowing problems, are at increased risk for aspiration pneumonia, pneumonia that develops when food particles are aspirated and enter the lung. If you have swallowing problems, you should be evaluated by a speech/language pathologist who can give you in exercises and use other interventions to help you improve swallowing. If you have severe swallowing problems, it may be necessary to use a feeding tube to prevent food aspiration and decrease risk for pneumonia.

Medications can contribute to breathing problems

Certain medications, including tranquilizers, muscle relaxants, and opioid analgesics, can impair breathing. People with MS who have swallowing and breathing problems should be monitored closely if they are receiving these medications.

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Written by: Jonathan Simmons | Last reviewed: May 2015.