Hyperventilation is breathing in excess of what the body needs. This is sometimes called overbreathing. Rapid or deep breathing is sometimes seen in very serious conditions such as infection, bleeding, or heart attack.
Hyperventilation syndrome is more specific and relates to an overbreathing pattern that happens under certain conditions. This overbreathing results in a group of symptoms.
Although hyperventilation syndrome may seem very similar to panic attacks, the two disorders are different.
- People with panic disorder often have emotional complaints (for example, fear of death or closed-in spaces) that accompany attacks.
- If a person has hyperventilation syndrome, however, he or she will have certain symptoms without these emotional complaints (although the person still may be anxious).
The cause or causes of hyperventilation syndrome are unknown. Certain conditions or situations produce overbreathing in some people.
Sudden and everyday are the two forms of hyperventilation syndrome. In its everyday form, the overbreathing may be hard to detect. The sudden form comes on rapidly and has more intense symptoms. People with this syndrome may have stomach, chest, nervous system, and emotional complaints.
Hyperventilation syndrome may result in swallowing excessive air. This results in the following abdominal symptoms:
Chemical changes can happen with overbreathing. Hyperventilation causes the carbon dioxide level in the blood to decrease. This lower level of carbon dioxide reduces blood flow to the brain, which may result in the following nervous system and emotional symptoms:
- A feeling of being outside yourself
- Seeing images that aren't there
- Feeling as if you can't breathe
Overbreathing can also cause the calcium levels to drop in your blood, which may result in the following nervous system symptoms:
- Numbness and tingling (usually in both arms or around the mouth)
- Spasms or cramps of the hands and feet
- Muscle twitching
Many different factors can cause chest symptoms with hyperventilation syndrome. Normally, breathing is relaxed. If a person over breathes, the lungs become overinflated. Without thinking about it, the person might use the chest muscles to expand the rib cage. This extra muscle work will feel like shortness of breath, and the person will have difficulty taking a deep breath. The chest muscles will become tired, just like the legs tire after a long run. The lowered carbon dioxide levels in the blood can cause squeezing of the airways, which then results in wheezing. Hyperventilation syndrome may cause the following chest symptoms:
- Chest pains or tenderness
- Shortness of breath
The doctor will make sure that the person isn't suffering a heart attack by considering the following:
- Hyperventilation symptoms usually last longer (hours as opposed to minutes).
- Hyperventilation symptoms usually happen in younger people.
- Hyperventilation symptoms usually improve with exercise.
- Hyperventilation pain does not improve with heart medication.
- In very rare cases, people who hyperventilate can have low carbon dioxide blood levels that can cause a spasm of the blood vessels that supply the heart. If a person already has heart disease, this spasm may be enough to cause a heart attack.
When to Seek Medical Care for Hyperventilation
If a person is experiencing signs and symptoms of hyperventilation syndrome, he our she should seek urgent medical attention to test for serious causes of overbreathing.
The person should get urgent medical attention if he or she is experiencing signs and symptoms of hyperventilation syndrome because more serious causes of overbreathing might be present.
The doctor will rapidly examine the patient, especially breathing and circulation. If the doctor does not find anything immediately life-threatening, the doctor will ask about medical history and do a physical exam.
Certain tests may be ordered to explore other causes of the patient's signs and symptoms. These tests are often ordered because the only way to confirm a person has hyperventilation syndrome is to eliminate other causes. The patient may have an IV started and may be hooked up to a monitor during the evaluation. The doctor may order these tests:
- Arterial blood sample
- Other blood tests
- Chest X-ray
- Ventilation/perfusion scan
- Chest CT scan
- Electrocardiogram (ECG, EKG)
If the doctor suspects the patient may have a condition more serious than hyperventilation syndrome, the doctor may recommend that hospitalization for further tests and observation. Life-threatening conditions associated with rapid or deep breathing include:
Hyperventilation Home Remedies
If a person has signs and symptoms of hyperventilation syndrome, a visit to a hospital's emergency department will determine whether or not he or she is having other, more worrisome causes of these symptoms. Home care for hyperventilation syndrome is only for people who have been told by their doctors that they have hyperventilation syndrome.
- If a person has been diagnosed with hyperventilation syndrome, the doctor may instruct the patient to briefly try certain breathing and relaxation exercises. This may work to stop an attack.
- Breathing into a paper bag is no longer recommended.
Once the doctor is sure that the patient's diagnosis is hyperventilation syndrome and not something more serious, the doctor will arrange follow-up care with a psychiatrist or a primary care doctor. These doctors will teach the patient about the syndrome and what techniques may help control the attacks. Sometimes, usually after talking with a regular doctor, certain medications may be prescribed. If the patient's condition worsens after visiting the emergency department, he or she should return for a recheck.
With appropriate training, a person may use stress-reduction techniques, breathing exercises, and certain medications to reduce the number and severity of the hyperventilation attacks. In addition, therapy for any anxiety problems should help reduce the number of attacks and their severity.
Hyperventilation syndrome is an area of medicine under current study. Hyperventilation research focuses on understanding the conditions that predispose some people to this syndrome as well as its relationship to related disorders.
Medically reveiewed by James E. Gerace, MD; American Board of Internal Medicine with subspecialty in Pulmonary Disease
MedscapeReference. Hyperventilation Syndrome.