What is Hyperventilation Syndrome?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Hyperventilation is over-breathing, and when this is part of a syndrome, it means breathing too much or rapidly on a regular basis, so that a constellation of symptoms may present. People often link hyperventilation syndrome to panic or anxiety disorder and specifically to panic attacks, and while those who have panic attacks may hyperventilate, the syndrome does not always originate from panic disorder. One distinction that is made between anxiety disorder and hyperventilation syndrome is that those with the syndrome aren’t always aware they are hyperventilating. On the other hand, it’s unwise to dismiss potential psychiatric causes of the condition, which may be complex and are frequently present.

Breathing into a bag during hyperventilation may help return carbon dioxide levels to normal.
Breathing into a bag during hyperventilation may help return carbon dioxide levels to normal.

The symptoms of hyperventilation syndrome can be varied. People often feel dizzy, they may have irregular heart rhythms, and the heavy breathing episodes can be accompanied by a sense of exhaustion. Hyperventilation sometimes occurs in cardiac events, but one of the differences may be that duration of heavy breathing can be much shorter if cardiac issues cause it, where in true expression of the syndrome, it could take hours for a heavy breathing episode to end. Other symptoms of this condition include tingling in the extremities, tightness of the chest, stomach upset, perspiration, shakiness, and experience of anxiety or panic.

During an acute expression of hyperventilation syndrome, the first goal is to get a person to calm their breathing down, as this will help alleviate many symptoms. One method that may be employed is having patients breathe into a paper bag. This may be useful because overbreathing depletes carbon dioxide levels more quickly than normal breathing. Some doctors don’t advocate this method anymore, and may instead work in a calm manner directly with a patient to help him or her slow breathing down.

Ironically, to diagnose hyperventilation syndrome, doctors may actually ask patients to breathe more rapidly for several minutes to determine if they begin to do so without effort. Diagnosis is important because an episode of hyperventilation can be linked to disorders of the lungs or the cardiac system. Doctors might also perform tests like lung and heart scans and blood tests to rule these out. Due to more serious causes, those having a hyperventilation attack are advised to seek immediate medical assistance.

When hyperventilation syndrome is diagnosed, people are usually referred to psychiatrists for additional help. Some behavioral medications may assist in controlling rapid breathing episodes. People can also be taught breathing and relaxation exercises that can help with transitioning out of overbreathing episodes when they start. It may take some work to fully recover from this condition, but with assistance many people are able to make good recoveries from this syndrome, though they some people remain more prone to hyperventilation episodes during times of extreme stress.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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