What is hyperventilation syndrome?

Hyperventilation syndrome is a condition that causes an individual to hyperventilate on a recurrent basis, which occurs when we breathe too much or over breathe. Hyperventilation syndrome is associated with both psychological and somatic (physical) symptoms. Initially, hyperventilation causes us to breathe very quickly with shallow breaths, but over time, it can cause other physical changes in the body, including an increase in the pH of arterial blood (blood flowing through the arteries) and a decrease in the pressure of carbon dioxide in the arteries and alveoli.

Hyperventilation syndrome is sometimes known as ‘behavioural breathlessness’ or psychogenic dyspnoea and there is a link between panic disorders and hyperventilation syndrome.

What causes hyperventilation syndrome?

One of the main causes of hyperventilation syndrome is anxiety, which is often related to stress. Many different things can bring on stress and some people are prone to feeling stressed and naturally worry more than others. Common causes of stress include work, relationships, financial worries, health problems and bereavement.

People respond to stress in different ways and in many cases of hyperventilation syndrome, stress makes the symptoms worse and the development of symptoms increases anxiety, creating a vicious cycle.

Symptoms of hyperventilation syndrome

Hyperventilation can affect people in different ways and symptoms can include:
Respiratory symptoms:

  • A tight chest.
  • Breathing quickly.
  • Breathing difficulties.

Other symptoms include:

  • Tingling.
  • Stiff muscles.
  • Tinnitus.
  • Wheezing.
  • Sweating.
  • Weakness.
  • Dizziness.
  • Blurred vision.
  • Sickness.
  • Tension.
  • Anxiety.
  • Rapid heart rate.

Many of the symptoms are associated with other health conditions, which is why a number of tests may be carried out before a diagnosis is confirmed.

Signs to look out for

If somebody has hyperventilation syndrome, they are unlikely to display any signs before an episode. However, if a doctor observes them during an acute episode, the following signs may be present:

  • The patient may look anxious.
  • The patient may struggle to breathe.
  • The patient may have difficulty talking.

Diagnosing hyperventilation syndrome

Hyperventilation syndrome is usually diagnosed based on symptoms and tests, including an ECG (electrocardiogram), blood tests and toxicology screening. The test results may be used to rule out other conditions before a diagnosis of hyperventilation syndrome is confirmed.

Management and treatment

Hyperventilation syndrome is a complicated condition and does not have a treatment that can magically cure it. The condition affects people in numerous different ways and the individual must try and manage their symptoms with the help of medical staff.

Management of HVS usually involves two key parts: the first is to try and control the hyperventilation and the second is to try and control your response and the way you deal with potentially stressful situations.

Coping with hyperventilation

Breathing exercises can be very helpful with controlling your breathing and preventing hyperventilation and you may be referred to a specialist nurse or a physiotherapist to help you with the exercises. You can check your breathing patterns by sitting down and resting your hands at the bottom of your chest, above your waist, positioning your hands so that your fingertips are touching. If you are breathing deeply your finger should pull apart, so that they are not touching.

Coping with stressful situations

Findings ways to cope with stress usually helps to prevent symptoms and there are various strategies you can use. To help you with this you may be referred to a psychologist to help you find effective ways of dealing with stressful scenarios. It may also help to talk to your friends and relatives and get them on board to help you. Relaxation techniques may be effective and may include breathing exercises, yoga, Pilates and massage therapy.

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