Over-breathing is a breathing pattern disorder
• Over-breathing does not imply you have a problem with your lungs
• It affects many otherwise healthy people
• Symptoms may or may not include unexplained shortness of breath (see
• Sometimes rapid breathing and heart rate too, but not always.
• Over-breathing may be a response to emotional or environmental factors
• The condition causes changes to blood chemistry and blood flow.
• These get better when you learn to breath less.
• Treatment normally involves breathing retraining.
What is it?
Over-breathing is a common result of prolonged stress, and it often holds the key to understanding a wide range of health problems. It is increasingly recognised as a significant cause of ill-health, although it remains widely under-diagnosed.
Over-breathing / Breathing Patterns Disorders are defined simply as moving more air through the chest than the body can deal with.
It may be caused by breathing faster than normal (usually more than 15 breaths a minute) mouth breathing, or sighing or yawning frequently.
Most people have experienced short episodes of acute over breathing during stressful or frightening events and it is very easy to spot. But more subtle persistent over-breathing is characterized by a whole array of symptoms, which can be baffling to both sufferer and doctor alike.
We breathe in oxygen-rich air and breathe out the carbon-dioxide our body constantly produces. But if too much carbon dioxide is flushed out of the system, it alters the body’s normal acid/alkaline balance. This in turn produces changes in the way nerves, muscles and blood circulation work.
Even slight falls in carbon dioxide levels will directly affect nerve cells, as well as blood flow to the heart and brain, producing a wide variety of symptoms in many parts in the body.
In over-breathing the normal pattern of breathing often moves from using the diaphragm to using the upper chest. This constant overuse of upper body muscles can cause pain and tension in chest, neck, shoulders and head as well. It is also tiring, anxious-making, and may cause fatigue or make it worse.
Understandable anxiety over symptoms tends to cause further over-breathing, thereby creating a vicious circle.
In this medical practice we use a computerised breath analysis test to diagnose over-breathing accurately.
Why does over-breathing happen?
Over-breathing is one of the body’s ways of signaling distress, so there could be many different triggers, involving physical, emotional and environmental factors.
• People who push themselves too hard at work, study, or sport (or simply burn the candle at both ends) are especially at risk.
• For some over-breathing is an occupational hazard if their jobs involve a lot of speaking.
• Dusty or noisy workplaces may be a factor.
• Chronic mouth-breathers are particularly prone, as are people with asthma.
• Anaemia (not enough oxygen carrying red cells in the blood) may stimulate
• Hormonal triggers. CO2 levels drop by up to 25% after ovulation
(premenstrual tension can sometime result), during pregnancy, and
• Poor posture, obesity or ergonomics at work (all with resulting overuse of
upper body muscles) may act as a trigger.
• After surgery, or illness, or prolonged social or physical stress
What are the symptoms?
ACUTE over-breathing – agitation or even panic attacks, rapid upper chest breathing and heart-rate, chest pains, shortness of breath, nausea, tingling dizziness, clammy hands, dilated pupils, perhaps fainting and general weakness.
PERSISTENT over-breathing – general tiredness, lack of concentration and sleep disturbances, tingling, dizziness, chest pains and palpitations, irritable cough and breathing discomfort with frequent sighs and yawns, erratic blood pressure, upset gut, bloated feelings, nausea, sexual problems, achy muscles, twitching and cramps, tension and panicky feelings, depression and anxiety.
If undiagnosed and untreated, the persistent over-breather lives in fear and of symptoms, and self confidence takes a nose-dive. Life becomes a misery for the over-breather as well as family and friends.
Caution: some over-breathing symptoms such as chest pain, dizziness and shortness of breath always need proper medical investigation.
What can be done to help?
An accurate diagnosis, recognition of causes or triggers, and an expert assessment is the first step.
The assessment will lead to a treatment plan based on susceptibility, triggers and maintaining factors that seem relevant. Treatment options include breathing retraining, postural and upper chest musculo-skeletal bodywork, stress recognition, physical coping strategies, sleep hygiene and a graduated fitness regimen and lifestyle appraisal. Nutritional/environmental factors might also need attending to.
Stress management is usually an important part of the package. Counselling for anxiety and depression is sometimes required. Medication such as anti- depressants or muscle relaxants are occasionally indicated.
Fifty percent of the cure is in undertstanding the disorder and its triggers. Fifty percent is the long-term work that breathing pattern retraining calls for, and for learning effective relaxation methods.
It may take months to change an established pattern from dysfunctional breathing, back to normal. Sometimes it takes longer.
Regular and effective practice is crucial with regular checks on progress with your advisor, and liaison with any other clinicians involved.
People often express disbelief that over-breathing could be causing their strange symptoms.
Am I going mad? NO
Have I got a serious disease? NO
Why me? IT WILL BE IMPORTANT TO FIND OUT WHAT THE STRESSORS ARE
Will I ever get over it? CERTAINLY
The good news is that Breathing Pattern Disorders are just that — a disorder not a disease. The not so good news is that it takes time, patience, and practice, practice, practice. There is no instant cure.
BUT as you learn to breathe more quietly and slowly and restore balance to your carbon dioxide levels, the unpleasant symptoms caused by over- breathing will subside. You will enjoy life again!
- Hyperventilation Syndrome/Breathing Pattern Disorders.
- Dinah Bradley (Random House 2007.)3rd edition.) (Kyle Cathie UK 2006)
- Breathing Works for Asthma. Dinah Bradley & Tania Clifton-Smith (Random House 2003)
- Breathe Stretch & Move. Dinah Bradley & Tania Clifton-Smith (Random House 2005)
- Multidisciplinary Approaches to Breathing Pattern Disorders. Leon Chaitow, Dinah Bradley. Christopher Gilbert (Churchill Livingstone 2000)