Real Talk. Real Life. – It Took 14 Years to Diagnose My Breathing Problems
When anything to do with running comes up with my non-athlete friends, the conversation tends to wander to the dreaded “mile test” in elementary and middle school. If you know, you know- dressed in our gym class clothes, us youngsters were required to run a mile for time as part of a test the United States has to determine student fitness levels- there were even awards! Many of my friends dreaded this test and still have sour memories of it. My memories of it are just as vivid, but for very different reasons.
I did the mile test for the first time in 3rd grade. I was shocked to be one of the first to finish, as I had never been known as “fast” or “athletic” among my peers. While I never went for distance running as a student, my mile time was always pretty stellar, with my fastest around the 7:30 mark. However, that very run at 12 years old was the first time I experienced the breathing problems I’ve been dealing with ever since.
I was a bit more than halfway through the mile, and I felt my throat begin to close up. My breathing was labored and audible to my classmates. I remember one girl encouraged me to “breathe through your nose! Keep going!” which was very kind, but unfortunately did not solve my problem. Fourteen years later, nose-breathing still doesn’t help open up my throat. When I run, after a few minutes I feel like I’m suffocating, and am forced to walk no matter how my legs or mindset is feeling that day. It took fourteen years of feeling this way, but I finally figured out why.
A Diagnosis For My Breathing Problems
After over a decade of being handed inhalers, assuming my problems were allergy-related, and just generally feeling resigned to walking at least half of my run, my friend from college swimming sent me an interesting article titled “A Young Athlete’s Breathing Problems Weren’t Asthma. What Were They?”. She said to me with the link, “I wonder if this is why I have breathing problems”. As I read the article, something clicked. When talking to other people diagnosed with asthma, they speak of chest pain and feeling the lack of air in their lungs- I could never relate to that, since my problems are in my throat. That conversation with my friend encouraged me to finally reach out to an allergist, where I began the six-month journey to a diagnosis of Exercise-Induced Laryngeal Obstruction, or EILO.
EILO is a type of vocal cord dysfunction where when an individual exercises, the vocal cords don’t open up as much as they’re supposed to, if at all. Because it manifests as a breathing problem, it’s easy to diagnose it as asthma if the doctor is looking at symptoms and the lungs rather than the throat itself. My first visit to the allergist, I had an allergy test as well as an exam to test me for asthma- I was diagnosed with “mild asthma” and given a special inhaler for allergies, but I was still struggling when I ran. I kept pushing in follow-up appointments, and after four separate medications failed to solve my problems, I was given a walking rhinoscopy- the physician performed an exercise test, monitoring my heart rate and breathing on a treadmill, and afterward a tube was stuck down my nose into my throat to examine my vocal cords. I don’t wish that test on anyone, but the relief I felt finally having the correct diagnosis waved over me like the first jump into a cold pool; a bit of a shock to the system, but with excitement and hope for what’s to come.
The treatment for EILO is speech therapy, and I’ll be starting it this month. For the first time in years, I’m hopeful that I can run miles without needing to walk (I love the Galloway Method, but I want to know what I’m capable of with speed), and am excited to see how it affects my ability to train and race as I head into my first Half Ironman in September. If there’s one thing I want young athletes to take from this, it’s that fighting for the right diagnosis is always worth it- advocating for yourself can be difficult and scary, but you only have one body and you deserve to be heard and treated.