Background: Chronic breathlessness is a recognized clinical syndrome that severely impacts patients and carers, who become increasingly restricted in their daily activities. Often, patients become reliant on their carers, who are required to provide constant support. Although individual experiences of breathlessness have been previously investigated, there are few studies exploring contemporaneous experiences of breathlessness of the patient and their carer. This study aimed to understand the experience of severe chronic breathlessness in people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) from the perspective of the patient and carer unit. Methods: A qualitative study embedded in a randomised, placebo-controlled effectiveness study (RCT) of regular, low-dose (≤32 mg/day), sustained-release morphine for chronic breathlessness associated with COPD. Recruitment occurred between July 2017 and November 2018 in one respiratory and palliative care services, in South Australia. Participants were community-dwelling patients with COPD and severe breathlessness (modified Medical Research Council scale 3 or 4) and their carers. Separate semi-structured interviews were conducted with patients and carers, recorded and transcribed verbatim. Analysis was informed by grounded theory using a constant comparative approach. Results: From the 26 patients with a carer recruited for the RCT in South Australia, nine were interviewed in their homes. Six patients were men, median age 77 years. Carers were mostly women, who were their wives (n = 6), median age 70. Five themes emerged from the data: (1) shrinking world; (2) mutual adaptation; (3) co-management; (4) emotional coping; and (5) meaning in the face of death. Conclusion: Chronic breathlessness is a systemic condition that permeates all aspects of the patient's and carer's lives. Working as a team, patients and carers manage chronic breathlessness to achieve maximal function and well-being. Patients and carers share many aspects of the experience of breathlessness, but the carer seems particularly susceptible to emotional distress. Future chronic breathlessness interventions should target the patient and the carer, both together and separately to address their common and individual needs. Trial registration: The main trial is registered (registration no. NCT02720822; posted March 28, 2016).
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- Chronic breathlessness
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
- Qualitative research