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Shortness of breath in girls might not be serious concern

Cone Health-sponsored study says female athletes may just have smaller lungs

The shortness of breath and chest aches that some teenage female athletes experience during play may not be a major health concern after all, according to a Cone Health-sponsored study released last week.

The report from the LeBauer Cardiovascular Research Foundation determined the symptoms “may just be a part of growing up.” The findings are published in the latest issue of Current Sports Medicine Reports.

Previous research from multiple sources have found that middle school and high school girls who engage in sports have chest pains and shortness of breath nearly twice as often as their male counterparts.

Often they and their parents are told they may have asthma or other breathing problems.

“It is particularly a problem for fit, motivated young women trying to excel in high school sports,” said Chris Kelly, a co-author and a medical student at East Carolina University’s Brody School of Medicine.

Participants in the foundation’s study were examined to ensure they had healthy and normal hearts. They then were put through strenuous exercise.

What researchers found is that under high exertion, many young female athletes were limited mostly because their lungs had not grown to the size where they can bring in enough oxygen to keep up with the demand.

Not only do young people develop at different rates, but not all body parts develop at the same rate.

The researchers theorize that since legs often develop more quickly than torsos in young girls, that lung development doesn’t catch up for several years.

It is important to take shortness of breath and chest pain “very seriously no matter what age an athlete is,” said Dr. Dan Bensimhon, director of the cardiopulmonary exercise lab at Cone’s Heart and Vascular Center.

“If the symptoms persist and standard tests come up negative, it can become very frustrating. Many young women give up sports when they and their families can’t find answers.”

Parents and young athletes often fear the worst because of the fatigue symptoms, said Paul Chase, senior exercise physiologist at Cone and a national expert on cardiopulmonary exercise testing.

“But once you’ve ruled out any heart or lung troubles, explaining these physiological limitations may at least lessen or eliminate the anxiety that previously unexplained chest pains and shortness of breath brings,” he said.

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