Background: A pre-conference workshop at the 2012 European Association of Palliative Care meeting discussed the current scientific and clinical aspects of breathlessness. Aim: To describe a current overview of clinically relevant science in breathlessness. Design: A collation of workshop presentations and discussions. Data sources: Narrative review. Results: The mismatch between the drive to breathe and the ability to breathe underlies the major theories of breathlessness unifying central processing of peripheral inputs including more recent recognition of the importance of peripheral muscles in mediating efferent inputs, supporting reduction of breathlessness with muscle conditioning. Key questions are whether there is a 'final common pathway' for breathlessness? Are the central nervous system targets for reducing breathlessness identical irrespective of underlying aetiology? Central nervous system functional imaging confirms an ability to differentiate severity (intensity) from affective components (unpleasantness). Breathlessness generates suffering across the community for patients and their caregivers often for long periods. The exertional nature of breathlessness means that reduction rather than elimination of the symptom is the therapeutic goal. No single intervention is likely to relieve chronic refractory breathlessness, but interventions made up of several components may provide incremental relief. Having optimally treated any underlying reversible components, the resultant chronic refractory breathlessness can be treated with pharmacological, psychological and physical therapies to reduce the sensation and its impacts. Conclusion: Ensuring optimal delivery of interventions for breathlessness, whose design is underpinned by improving the understanding in the aetiology and maintenance of breathlessness, is the subject of ongoing controlled clinical trials. �� The Author(s) 2013.