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Published on April 18, 2013

Study Finds Chest Pain and Shortness of Breath in Female Adolescent Athletes May Be Part of Growing Up

Middle and high school girls who engage in sports have chest pains and shortness of breath nearly twice as often as their male counterparts. They are often told they have asthma or other breathing problems. But researchers at Cone Health say there is a good chance these symptoms may be just a part of growing up. The findings from LeBauer Cardiovascular Research Foundation are in the latest issue of Current Sports Medicine Reports (“Exercise-Induced Dyspnea and Chest Discomfort in Active Adolescent Girls.”)

“Of course, it is important to take shortness of breath and chest pain very seriously no matter what age an athlete is,” says Dr. Dan Bensimhon, a cardiologist at Cone Health and director of the cardiopulmonary exercise lab at Cone Health Heart and Vascular Center. “But 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.”

The researchers made sure the athletes had normal hearts then put them through strenuous exercise. They found that under high exertion, many young female athletes were limited because their lungs had not grown to the size where they can bring in enough oxygen to keep up with the demand. “It is particularly a problem for fit, motivated young women trying to excel in high school sports,” says first author, Chris Kelly, a medical student at East Carolina’s Brody School of Medicine.

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.

“Parents and these young athletes often fear the worse,” says Paul Chase, M. Ed, senior exercise physiologist at Cone Health 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.”