The last few weeks have been quite eye-opening to me. I received a diagnosis that made so much sense, but seemed kind of silly at the same time. Why? Because surely one of the medical professionals I had seen over the past 10 years would have diagnosed this, right? Because reading about a condition on the internet, sitting there as your chin drops and your mouth is wide open because the blog post just described every symptom you have been experiencing, and then telling your doctor seems kind of nuts, right? Nope. This really happened.
Vocal Cord Dysfunction. That’s the official diagnosis. Before I get deeper into what that means, let’s back up a little bit.
I ran an elementary school 3 mile race when I was in 3rd or 4th grade. I really shouldn’t say “ran” because I’m fairly certain I walked the majority of that race. I just felt like I couldn’t catch my breath. My father was a runner and ran a lot of local 5K and 10K races. We always went to watch him, and I never understood why anyone wanted to run…it just wasn’t fun in my opinion. My sport of choice as a child was gymnastics. I wanted to be the next Nadia Comaneci or Mary Lou Retton. They were my idols. When I was in my junior or senior year of high school, I tried to start running with some friends. They were boys and they were pretty fast, but even if I ran slowly, I could never catch my breath. Needless to say, that didn’t last long.
I didn’t really begin exercising as an adult until I was about 35 years old. After a few months of the elliptical, I got bored and decided to try to run outside. My mind kept going back to when I tried to run when I was younger and couldn’t catch my breath. I set out doing intervals of walking/running, and was thrilled when I ran my first mile without stopping! The more I ran, the more I began to notice it was hard for me to get a deep breath, especially if I was running outside and it was humid. My first thought was asthma because I did have some pretty nasty environmental allergies, and our son had been diagnosed with asthma. I could hear a wheeze as I tried to breathe in, so I made an appointment with my allergist.
My allergist at the time ran a bunch of breathing tests and said that I didn’t have asthma, but gave me an inhaler to use before running to see if it helped. It didn’t. I moved most of my running indoors and that did alleviate the problem for the most part. Looking back, that was probably for a couple of reasons - less humidity and more constant speed control.
The more I ran, the more I started to focus on how I was breathing. One of the high school friends I ran with had taught me how to breathe while running, and I somehow still remembered his words…2 breaths in through the nose, 1 breath out through the mouth. The more I focused on my breathing, the more natural it became, and the less I noticed any wheezing or difficultly taking a deep breath.
Fast forward to 2016. Running was going well…work was going well…life was good. I thought at this time it would be good to wean off of Lexapro, a medication I had been taking for 10 years. With the help of my primary care physician, I successfully weaned off of Lexapro within a couple of months. The months and year that followed were rough. By June 2017, it was apparent that my anxiety and depression were not able to be controlled without the help of medication despite my best efforts. On July 11, 2017, I started taking Zoloft, and it’s taken close to a year to get close to where I was with Lexapro. Lesson learned. I know this may seem a little off topic, but it plays a part.
One of the major anxiety symptoms I was experiencing was a tightness in my throat. That was coupled with difficulty taking a deep breath, a wheezing sound as I tried to inhale, the feeling that I was choking, and feeling like I needed to cough or clear my throat. The more I focused on this, the worse it got. Then I started to worry that my reflux was acting up. Then I worried that I would have to have an endoscopy and that scared me. My anxiety was off the charts. The more I tried to control my anxiety, the worse I felt. I tried everything…essential oils, meditation, yoga, breathing exercises, therapy, medication, exercise. Nothing made that feeling in my throat go away.
As the year progressed, there were times when I noticed that I felt a little better. Eating seemed to ease the symptoms. Additionally, when I woke up in the morning, I felt “normal,” whatever that means. I read how a friend found relief of the tension in her jaw by chewing gum. I gave that a try, and you know, it did help a little. Why did it help? Because it was similar to eating. (This will become clear later on.) I had tried a couple of other medications in addition to the Zoloft, and I didn’t like how they made me feel. One made my heart rate really high, and I felt like crap while taking it. Another exacerbated my anxiety. This girl doesn’t need any help with that, thank you very much! It was just about that time that I happened to read the blog post that opened my eyes.
I can’t even remember how I came across this blog post now. What caught my eye was that this runner had been misdiagnosed with Asthma when she really had Vocal Cord Dysfunction. To be honest, it interested me mostly because of the mention of asthma, and I like to read about possible new treatments - keeping our son in mind. As I started to read the article, I got a weird feeling. The more I read, the more I was thinking, “You have GOT TO BE KIDDING ME!” The symptoms were exactly what I had been experiencing!
- Feeling short of breath or feeling that it is hard to get air into or out of your lungs
- A feeling of tightness in your throat or chest
- Frequent cough or clearing your throat
- A feeling of choking or suffocation
- Noisy breathing (wheezing or raspy sound/stridor)
- Hoarse voice
In the past year, I’ve seen a GI doc, ENT, primary care, and psych NP, and no one picked up on this. I don’t blame any of my docs at all. I do have conditions that could explain those symptoms…Celiac Disease and reflux, environmental allergies, anxiety.
The one thing that struck me as odd, though, was how those symptoms seemed to go away when I ate, chewed gum, or sucked on a mint. I had an ENT and GI appointment follow-ups coincidentally scheduled in the same week in June, so I planned to address with both doctors.
...To Be Continued