Hyperventilation symptoms are often overlooked and written-off as “just anxiety” Most people would recognize an acute hyperventilation attack when they witnessed or suffered one, but many of us over-breathe all the time without knowing it. Hyperventilation symptoms in a person who has a chronic pattern of over-breathing differ somewhat from an acute hyperventilation episode.
What is the difference between acute and chronic hyperventilation? In an acute attack the sufferer is usually breathing very rapidly and is in an obvious anxious or panicked state – the sympathetic nervous system is operating under ‘fight or flight ‘ conditions. Conversely, with chronic hyperventilation the sufferer does not look like they are breathing hard or fast. Commonly they will yawn or heavy sigh a lot and it is these deep breaths, with only a slightly elevated breathing rate, that can maintain someone in a state of chronic hyperventilation.
What does it mean to hyperventilate or over-breathe all the time? When we breathe more than the body needs (to meet its metabolic requirements at any particular time), we blow off too much carbon dioxide. This alters the pH or acid-alkaline balance. Carbon dioxide is acid so by reducing the levels in the body, it becomes more alkaline. When this occurs because of an increased breathing rate or depth, it is called respiratory alkalosis. This sets up a biochemical imbalance that produces some disturbing symptoms.
- Dizziness, confusion, unexplained fatigue, weakness (these are common presentations
because low CO2 reduces blood flow to the brain).
- Tingling or numbness, especially around the mouth or in the hands, due to nerve
hypersensitivity from the biochemical imbalance.
- Chest pain – your chest may feel sore. The chest pain may feel like angina but in this case it
is usually relieved by exercise and not relieved by nitroglycerine.
- Frequent yawning and sighing.
- Air ‘hunger’ and feeling like you cannot take a deep breath or ‘get your breath’.
- Poor exercise tolerance. You may get breathless much more easily and your legs ache and
feel weak upon exercise – this is because your body is retaining lactic acid in order to
counter the prevailing alkaline environment.
- You may have an upset or sore stomach and this is usually due to swallowing air.
- Phobic reactions to certain places or events that have brought on symptoms in the past
are common. This can lead to frequent panic episodes with more acute hyperventilation-type symptoms.
Medical studies have estimated that up to 10% of the otherwise healthy population suffer from chronic hyperventilation to some degree. People with asthma and COPD are also prone to chronic hyperventilation. That indicates there are a lot of people wandering around breathing more than they need to be. Many of them have also been told by their doctors there is nothing wrong, or they are suffering “just a bit of anxiety”. Certainly the symptoms alone are enough to make one anxious, but in most cases the over-breathing precedes the panic and worry. Dr Claude Lum, a British chest physician who wrote extensively on chronic hyperventilation, said that one of the diagnostic clues to this disorder was ‘fat folder syndrome’ – anyone with a fat case file and no obvious organic disease, but symptoms that include some of those listed above, should be considered a prime candidate for a diagnosis of chronic hyperventilation syndrome.
If this is you, please contact your doctor and mention what you have learnt here. Chronic hyperventilation is not usually life threatening, but it is unpleasant and you can be helped. Treatment is relatively straightforward and involves learning to breathe in a different way and manage your stress levels so that your breathing doesn’t take over when life starts getting a little rugged…or someone cuts you off in traffic….or your colleague sends you a nasty email….