Hyperventilation, What Helps, Symptoms, Treatment

Breathing too much causes all kinds of complaints. This is very annoying and the body can no longer function normally. How does breathing work? What goes wrong in the body? And what can you do to reduce the complaints and even ensure that breathing returns to normal? What are the symptoms and how can you treat hyperventilation?

How does breathing work?

When inhaling, we use the chest and abdominal muscles to get air into the lungs. These muscles are stimulated by the respiratory center in the brain. The frequency of stimuli is determined by the acidity in the blood. The amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the blood determines the level of acidity.

Air enters the lungs when inhaled. One of the functions of the lungs is to extract oxygen from this air, which is dissolved in the blood. This happens in the pulmonary vessels. In this way, oxygen enters the body’s bloodstream. When oxygen is consumed in the body, carbon dioxide is produced. The lungs remove carbon dioxide by removing it from the blood and expelling it from the body when you exhale.

Breathing is not constant. When the body moves, the frequency of breathing increases because the body then needs more oxygen. At rest the frequency decreases.

What’s going wrong?

Almost everyone hyperventilates sometimes. This is because this is a normal response of the body to danger or excitement. The body then prepares itself for a sudden effort that requires more oxygen. More oxygen in the blood also means more CO2 in the blood. Because there is more CO2 in the blood, the acidity increases, which stimulates the respiratory center in the brain to breathe faster. This is necessary for the body because more effort requires more oxygen.

If you breathe more than necessary, the CO2 buffers in the body are used to supplement the CO2 shortage. This is a temporary situation, because when the body returns to rest, the breathing frequency decreases and the CO2 buffers are replenished.

Continuous hyperventilation creates a situation in which the body has a CO2 shortage. The blood in the bloodstream then becomes alkaline (very low acidity). If this situation lasts too long, the respiratory center in the brain may regard this as normal, causing hyperventilation even with a minimal increase in the CO2 level in the blood.

Complaints and symptoms

Common complaints of hyperventilation are a feeling of vagueness in the head, an unreal feeling and a tired body. Because hyperventilation narrows the blood vessels, less blood flows to the brain and therefore less oxygen, causing these complaints. They are annoying but not harmful to the body.

Fatigue of the body is explained by increased production of lactic acid. Because the acidity has become out of balance, the body tries to get it back in line with an increased production of lactic acid. This normally happens during high exertion of the body.

The following symptoms are common with hyperventilation:

  • palpitations
  • beating of the heart
  • painful chest
  • headache
  • dizziness
  • anxious and restless
  • tingling on the skin
  • stuffy feeling
  • tightness in the chest
  • painful breathing muscles
  • pain around the stomach
  • dry mouth
  • tight skin around the mouth
  • unreal feeling
  • blurry eyes
  • fear of fainting
  • fear of dying

This last symptom, the fear of dying, arises from the oppressive feeling in the chest caused by hyperventilation. Because the breathing muscles (chest and abdominal muscles) are used incorrectly, they are put under extra strain. Breathing is often faster, which means that less is done with the abdominal muscles and more with the chest, which naturally causes a painful chest. These painful complaints are often confused with the symptoms of a heart attack.

What helps?

Have your doctor diagnose whether it is hyperventilation. When in doubt, a referral to a specialist is always a good idea. Once hyperventilation has been diagnosed, appropriate treatment can be sought. Treatment is often aimed at finding the causes of hyperventilation. Hyperventilation will not be resolved simply by combating the complaints. It is therefore important that the causes are found and that something is done about them. Find out in which situations or events hyperventilation occurs. Treatment by a psychotherapist can be a good help in this regard.

Respiratory therapy can be helpful to get breathing back to normal. The body then essentially relearns breathing. The respiratory center in the brain is reprogrammed.

Read all about treatment with respiratory therapy here.