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Misdiagnosis Could Lead To Unnecessary Asthma Treatment For Many Young Athletes

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- Doctors have known for a long time that exercise can trigger asthma.

New research says many of those athletes, especially women, have been misdiagnosed -- they don't actually have asthma.

As CBS2's Dr. Max Gomez explained, it's a problem with their vocal cords, and there's a high-tech cure.

Imagine trying to run a race, only to be forced to breathe through a straw on your last lap.

That's the frightening sensation for millions of young athletes, especially women.

Vocal cord dysfunction, or VCD, leads thousands to undergo surgery each year, but there's an easier way.

Training for a triathlon is more than just a hobby for Tyler Evans, he makes his living competing.

So when Tyler started having serious breathing problems over the summer, he stood to lose more than just a few races, his income was at stake.

"I thought, you know, my career might be over at one point. I might not be able to keep doing this. What if there is something, not just career ending, but something that's life threatening?" he said.

After seeing numerous doctors for everything from heart problems to asthma Tyler went to National Jewish Health in Denver, where doctors diagnosed him with vocal cord dysfunction or VCD. At certain times during exercise, Tyler's vocal cords began to spasm and close.

"It often is just terrifying, so independent of the effort required to breathe, there's this emotional effect," Dr. Tod Olin explained.

Unable to manage VCD with medicine, many patients turn to surgery.

Dr. Olin puts athletes on an exercise bike and puts a camera in their throat.

He then uses biofeedback, specialized breathing techniques - even speech therapists and psychologists to treat patients - not just in counseling sessions, but in the midst of strenuous exercise.

"I work with patients while they're pedaling as fast as they can on a bike or while they're running at 14 miles an hour on our treadmills so that they can learn these techniques under really intense situations," Dr. Olin explained.

A new study found that the technique works -- 75 percent of adolescent athletes had improved breathing without surgery, and 85 percent called it the most important therapy they had received.

Tyler got better and was able to avoid surgery, and the months of training he would miss to recover.

Because VCS is often mistaken for asthma it isn't treated properly, so many athletes don't get better on asthma meds and quit their sport out of frustration.

The study was the first to show VCS can be diagnosed and treated successfully without surgery.

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