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Asthma Misdiagnosis Sidelines Many Young Athletes

By Dr. Mallika Marshall, WBZ-TV
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Dr. Mallika Marshall, WBZ-TV Medical Reporter Dr. Mallika Marshall
Dr. Mallika Marshall is WBZ-TV News’ Medical Reporter and contributes...
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BOSTON (CBS) – Beth Radcliffe is your typical active high school sophomore. But in 8th grade the Holliston teen began struggling to breathe while playing her favorite sports. “It was really frightening because I didn’t know what was happening and I didn’t know what to do,” says Beth.

She was first diagnosed with exercise-induced asthma, then full blown asthma, and given an inhaler but she still had trouble keeping up. “There was definitely a point when I didn’t think I’d be able to continue on with sports.”

Beth didn’t need an inhaler she needed to see a speech pathologist. Beth’s asthma diagnosis was wrong. She really has PVFM or Paradoxical Vocal Fold Motion. “What it is is the inappropriate closure of the vocal folds while you’re breathing in,” says Beth’s speech pathologist, Cathie Ballif of Mass Eye & Ear. The closure of the vocal folds makes it hard to breathe. Asthma medications won’t fix the problem instead patients need to learn to control their throat muscles with a variety of breathing exercises.

The staff at Mass Eye and Ear tell us they are seeing a sharp increase in cases especially among teenagers. “We are identifying it in teenagers because it does directly impact their quality of life in school sports,” says Ballif.

It’s estimated that about 5% of exercise-induced asthma cases are really PVFM, a much easier condition to treat. “People with PVFM that are using inhalers are actually unnecessarily put those medications into their body.” It’s still important to rule out asthma first which can be life-threatening.

After just a few training sessions Beth was back in the game. And now breathing strategies are as important as game strategy. “It is very relieving because you don’t have to worry about bringing an inhaler, or bringing a medicine , or taking a pill every day. I know anywhere I am, because I practiced doing it, I can just take control of the situation.”

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