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What is Chronic Hyperventilation?

By J.M. Willhite
Updated May 17, 2024
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Chronic hyperventilation is the physical act of consistently breathing in more air than what the body requires. It's also known as over-breathing. Hyperventilation syndrome (HVS) is a persistent condition that results from the absence of regulating one's breathing following a single episode of hyperventilation. There is no known, single cause for HVS though secondary psychological or physiological conditions can contribute to the development of acute and chronic cases of HVS. Treatment for chronic HVS often requires breathing retraining and a referral to a specialist such as a therapist or psychiatrist.

Normal breathing patterns promote a balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the blood. Rapid, shallow breathing associated with hyperventilation reduces carbon dioxide levels in the blood leading to respiratory acidosis and blood vessel restriction. When the blood vessels are constricted, oxygenated blood is prevented from reaching the brain, impairing the functionality of the nervous and circulatory systems. Restoration of the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the bloodstream is essential to proper regulation of the body's multiple systems.

Most instances of hyperventilation are induced by anxiety resulting from a stressful or traumatic event or situation. Secondary physical conditions such as infection, heart attack, and asthma may cause an individual to breathe shallowly, promoting an irregular breathing pattern. Psychological disorders, such as agoraphobia, can contribute to the onset of chronic hyperventilation symptoms. Individuals with chronic hyperventilation syndrome will exhibit recurrent symptoms establishing a pattern of occurrence — therein lies the chronic aspect of the problem. In severe cases of chronic hyperventilation, the individual can develop neurological deficits such as vision changes or impaired mental functioning.

Conventional treatment of hyperventilation involves restoring carbon dioxide to the bloodstream. This can be achieved by breathing into a small, paper bag. A paper bag can be effective in the short-term as an intervention tool, but may result in the reintroduction of too much carbon dioxide into the bloodstream if used for too long. When coached properly, promoting deep, slow abdominal breaths will accomplish the same goal as a paper bag.

Medical attention should be sought in the presence of episodes of hyperventilation because other diagnoses can carry the same symptoms. Individuals in the midst of an episode may experience chest constriction or pain, lightheadedness, or numbness of the face or extremities. Treatment for hyperventilation episodes is dependent on the severity of the episode and the elimination of secondary, or underlying, conditions. To alleviate immediate symptoms, treatment may include the use of medication, coached breathing, chest compression to reestablish a normal breathing pattern, or, in severe cases, sedation. Options for alleviating chronic hyperventilation symptoms can include breathing retraining, relaxation exercises, and talk therapy.

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