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Hyperventilation: A Commonly Misunderstood Respiratory Event

By HERWriter
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What is Hyperventilation?

Hyperventilation is the term associated with rapid breathing, which is breathing that is in excess of what the body needs to function. Rapid breathing can be the result of a physical ailment or a psychosomatic - or emotional - response to a particular environment or event. The term hyperventilation syndrome relates to an over breathing pattern. Some patients may not even be aware that they are over breathing.

Hyperventilation is normally associated with anxiety or panic attacks, but it can be much more. Often, hyperventilation and panic work off each other - one feels panicked and starts hyperventilating; the feeling of not being able to breathe makes one feel even more panicked.

Hyperventilation syndrome may seem similar to anxiety or panic attacks, but it is really quite different. Panic disorders are associated with such things as fear of death or claustrophobia. With hyperventilation syndrome, however, the rapid breathing occurs without a particular emotional complaint (for example with asthma, emphysema, or lung cancer).

The Effects of Hyperventilation on the Body

Normal lung function clears out carbon dioxide (CO2) from the bloodstream. With hyperventilation, CO2 levels drop in the blood resulting in reduced blood flow to the brain and associated weakness, fainting, dizziness, confusion, agitation, and feeling like you can't breathe. In extreme cases, particularly for those patients with a history of heart disease, low carbon dioxide levels can cause spasms of the blood vessels that lead to the heart; spasms enough to cause a heart attack.

Hyperventilation can also cause a decrease in calcium levels in the blood, resulting in numbness or tingling usually in the arms and around the mouth, spasms or cramping of the hands and feet, and twitching muscles.

Hyperventilation symptoms usually:
- last hours as opposed to minutes
- occur in younger people
- improve with exercise
- do not improve with administering of heart medications

Diagnosis and Treatment of Hyperventilation

Diagnosis is usually confirmed once a physician has ruled out other potential medical causes for the rapid breathing.

Once a doctor determines that the symptoms are caused by anxiety, stress, or panic, there are certain things you can do, or a family member can help you do to help bring your breathing back down to normal:

- With a small paper bag placed over your mouth and nose, take six to 12 easy breaths. Then remove the bag and breathe naturally. (WARNING: Do not use a plastic bag and do not breathe into paper bag if there are any underlying heart or lung problems. Do not use the paper bag continually)
- Learn deep breathing techniques
- Ask the person with you to speak to you in a calm voice
- If you are person who is trying to calm a hyperventilating person down, determine whether the over breathing is not part of other physical conditions (eg: asthma). Look for tingling in the fingers and lips, and spasms in the hands and feet
- Also, as a helper, coach the person who is over breathing to inhale slowly and deeply

There are several methods of breathing that can help calm things down:

1) Breathe in deeply through the nose and out through the mouth
2) Inhale, hold the breath for as long as possible, and then exhale; repeat this as necessary
3) Exhale through pursed lips, or through the nose with one nostril pinched
4) Learn to breathe diaphragmatically. Many people don't realize the vital role the diaphragm (located below the rib cage) plays in breathing. Diaphragmatic breathing happens automatically when you lie down

If symptoms do not improve with these breathing techniques, or become more severe, contact your family doctor immediately.

Sources: www.cigna.com; www.healthline.com; http://firstaid.about.com; www.webmd.com

Add a Comment2 Comments

Please don't advise people to breathe deeply when hypervenbtilating. The English language is confusing! For many it will mean breathe more strongly, exactly wghat they don't need! For some it will mean breathe with the diapragm as opposed to the upper chest, ie more deeply, this may be OK so long as they do it gently and reduce the volume of air per minute. Sorry to be pedantic it's just that our language can often be misinterpreted.

May 12, 2011 - 9:14am
HERWriter (reply to Buteykomike)

Thank you for the clarification. That's what "deeply" meant in this context..."deep" not "strong".

May 12, 2011 - 10:47am
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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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