What Happens When the Wind Is Knocked Out of You?

You know the drill: You had a nightmare and fell out of the bed flat on your back. Or maybe you got nailed in the stomach with the soccer ball (bummer) at the last company game. And both scenarios left you unable to breathe. You’ve had the wind knocked out of you.

But what’s really happening — physically and medically? Are you OK?

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What Happens When the Wind Gets Knocked Out of You?

What does “getting the wind knocked out of you” mean, really? This (extremely uncomfortable) experience usually happens when you get a hard blow to the abdomen or chest. Think falling off the jungle gym when you were a kid, or taking a direct hit to the chest from a ball in a sports game or an air bag during a car accident.

“Getting the wind knocked out of you is when an external force is strong enough to disrupt your natural inhalation and exhalation pattern,” says Alexa Mieses Malchuk, M.D., MPH, a family physician and district medical director for One Medical in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina.

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In summation, a hard hit to the chest = you can’t breathe.

The medical name for this is phrenospasm. It means a forceful impact to your abdomen causes the diaphragm to either spasm (hence the “spasm” in phrenospasm) or become temporarily paralyzed, which interferes with your ability to breathe.

So not only do your lungs empty, but they also can’t fill back up with air for at least a few seconds. It’s almost as if a vacuum suddenly sucks the breath from your lungs, and you can’t take another gasp of air. That’s why it feels so uncomfortable — and pretty scary — but fortunately it’s (usually) not medically significant.

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How Long Does It Last?

The good news is that the intense discomfort — and inability to breathe — is usually quite brief. “More often than not, people recover quickly (in seconds), and breathe normally,” Malchuk says.

So what should you do when you get the wind knocked out of you? Just do your best to remain calm (we know this is easier said than done); relaxing your body may help your diaphragm — the major muscle of respiration — relax more quickly. And as your diaphragm relaxes, you’ll soon be able to take a deep breath again. Keep those breaths smooth, slow, steady and deep to avoid sending your body into further panic.

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Should You See a Doctor?

You probably don’t need to visit a physician unless you also took a major hit to your heart or brain.

“[Getting the wind knocked out of you] is different from a big blow to the chest that affects your heart or something related to your brain that makes you faint,” Malchuk says.

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If you hit your head while falling, it’s worth getting checked for a concussion. Depending on the nature of your accident, you could have bruising, or even a cracked rib.

However, if it’s just the “wind” you’re dealing with, you should be fine. But Malchuk says, “If you are having trouble catching your breath or becoming short of breath from your usual activities, seek medical attention.”

Cardiologist Ernst von Schwarz says there’s a difference between feeling “winded” and “getting the wind knocked out of you.” “‘Getting winded’ usually means ‘shortness of breath,'” he explains. “If [it occurs] with physical activity, we call that ‘exertional dyspnea.'” Causes range from anxiety to lung disease to needing more exercise. The causes of feeling winded are more severe (and potentially life threatening). “Any acute onset of severe shortness of breath should be immediately evaluated by a doctor, and the sooner the better,” he says.

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