Hyperventilation means moving more air through the chest than the body can deal with. It is a normal reaction to sudden danger or excitement with the release of adrenaline, causing faster breathing and heart rate as the body gets ready for flight and fight. Sometimes people even faint or collapse, but once the danger or stressful event goes the body quickly returns to normal: we have all heard of paramedics giving someone a paper bag to breathe into in order to relieve a ‘panic attack’.
Less commonly a breathing pattern disorder may develop in which over-breathing becomes a habit. Widespread unpleasant symptoms can occur, often mimicking serious disease causing significant anxiety and distress.
Normal breathing is via the nose using the diaphragm versus the upper chest. As we breathe in, we take in oxygen rich air to fuel our body. The body manufactures carbon-dioxide which is removed in the air we breathe out. It is this carbon dioxide that governs many of the body systems.
By over-breathing the balance between oxygen and carbon-dioxide is upset causing carbon-dioxide levels to drop. The result is a change in blood chemistry causing the body to become more alkaline: this impacts on every organ in the body causing the diverse spectrum of symptoms associated with chronic hyperventilation.
There are numerous reasons and conditions that can lead or contribute to dysfunction breathing. They include;
Nose and sinus problems leading to mouth breathing
Lifestyle – modern day hectic life style can be stressful with individuals taking inadequate rest and relaxation
Pain – long standing pain can alter breathing patterns.
Thyroid problems, cardiac problems, kidney disease and anaemia can all trigger hyperventilation
Excessive caffeine or nicotine
Chronic hyperventilation can cause breathlessness at rest, chest pain and palpitations. Sufferers may experience dizziness or feel spaced out with tingling or pins and needles around the mouth or extremities. Aching muscles and joints along with fatigue, weakness and disturbed sleep are common symptoms.
Individuals may be seen to yawn and sigh a lot. They may experience excessive sweating and anxiety, or bowel upsets. In all, the symptoms of chronic hyperventilation can prove to be debilitating and frightening.
An experienced physiotherapist can help correct dysfunctional breathing patterns using breathing retraining and relaxation techniques.
The priority is to learn to nose breathe followed by relaxation and regular exercises to establish slow, low volume, wave breathing using the diaphragm. Sometimes soft tissue techniques may be needed to switch off overactive upper chest muscles that have become short and tight due to poor breathing habits. Diet, lifestyle, activity levels and sleep routine will all need to be considered.
It takes time and practice to change a poor breathing habit, but restoring a normal breathing pattern can relieve many of the unpleasant symptoms associated with chronic hyperventilation.