What is Hyperventilation Syndrome & Is it Life-Threatening?|Causes, Symptoms, Treatment, Breathing Exercises for Hyperventilation Syndrome

What is Hyperventilation Syndrome?

Hyperventilation syndrome (HVS) is a condition caused by hyperventilation and consists of a group of emotional and physical symptoms. Hyperventilation syndrome is characterized by over-breathing where the patient breathes much more rapidly and shallowly.

What are the Causes of Hyperventilation Syndrome?

Stress and anxiety is the primary cause of hyperventilation syndrome or HVS. Patients suffering from hyperventilation syndrome respond to stress by tensing the muscles of their upper body, which in turn affects the function of the diaphragm. This results in increased pressure on the thoracic muscles used for breathing. Persistent or chronic overuse of thoracic muscles can gradually lead to breathlessness, chest tightness and feeling of suffocation. Hyperventilation occurs in the patient as a reaction to all these unpleasant symptoms. Patient starts to breathe shallowly and more quickly, which can be interrupted by bursts of sighing. Unfortunately, symptoms of hyperventilation syndrome further lead to increased anxiety or aggravated anxiety, which is the main cause of hyperventilation syndrome. Patients suffering from HVS or hyperventilation syndrome are afraid that their symptoms are an indication of an underlying illness and become more stressed and frustrated with their HVS symptoms resulting in worsening of the symptoms of hyperventilation syndrome.

What are the Symptoms of Hyperventilation Syndrome?

  • Respiratory symptoms resulting from hyperventilation syndrome consist of: Breathlessness, rapid breathing, tightness around the chest and repeated sighing.
  • Tetanic symptoms resulting from hyperventilation syndrome consist of: Tingling sensation in fingers, mouth and arms; trembling in hands and muscle stiffness.
  • Cerebral symptoms resulting from hyperventilation syndrome consist of: Blurred vision, dizziness, headaches and faintness.
  • Cardiac symptoms resulting from hyperventilation syndrome consist of: Tachycardia, palpitations, shivering, cold hands or feet and warm sensation in the head.
  • Gastrointestinal symptoms resulting from hyperventilation syndrome consist of: Sickness and pain in the abdomen.
  • Psychological or emotional symptoms resulting from hyperventilation syndrome consist of: Anxiety, tension, fatigue, insomnia and lethargy.

What are the Physiological Changes Seen in Hyperventilation Syndrome?

Other changes associated with hyperventilation syndrome which take place over a period of time include:

  • Increase in arterial pH (respiratory alkalosis).
  • Reduction of the carbon dioxide pressure in arteries and lungs.
  • Increased production of lactic and pyruvic acid.
  • Constriction of cerebral arteries.

What is the Treatment of Hyperventilation Syndrome?

The important thing in treating and managing hyperventilation syndrome is to identify and accept the symptoms for what they stand for. Diagnosis with hyperventilation syndrome means that the symptoms are not caused by an underlying physical problem. The symptoms of hyperventilation syndrome can be very frightening for the patient and are also very real, but the important thing to remember is that hyperventilation syndrome and its symptoms are not life threatening.

Management of symptoms of hyperventilation syndrome (HVS) depends on the patient, as it is the patient itself who can control their condition of hyperventilation syndrome. It can be difficult for the patient to do this, but with proper guidance, patient can control the causes and consequences of the symptoms of hyperventilation syndrome.

The 2 important things, which need to be done in the treatment and management of hyperventilation syndrome, are: dealing with hyperventilation; and secondly, is efficiently managing and learning to cope with potentially stressful situations.

Managing and Treating Hyperventilation Syndrome with Breathing Exercises

For managing hyperventilation, patient can benefit from breathing and relaxation exercises which need to be done on a daily basis. Patients suffering from hyperventilation syndrome can also be referred to a clinical psychologist, physiotherapist, or a specialist nurse to help patient in developing breathing and relaxation skills. Deep and slow breathing is vital in managing the symptoms of hyperventilation syndrome. Deep and effective breathing requires complete use of the lungs, such that the entire chest expands including the diaphragm muscle.

Given below are some breathing exercises to treat and manage hyperventilation syndrome:

Breathing Exercise 1. Choose a comfortable position either sitting or lying to practice deep breathing for hyperventilation syndrome. Think that your lungs are divided into three sections. Gently breathe in through your nose. Imagine the lowest part of your lungs is filling with air. Using the diaphragm is important and when you are using the diaphragm, your stomach will protrude a little. Next, imagine the middle part of your lungs filling with air and gradually your lungs are becoming full. The shoulders may move backwards and rise slightly when practicing this deep breathing exercise to cope with hyperventilation syndrome.

Breathing Exercise 2. Inhale deeply and completely through your nose. Hold your breath for 2 seconds. Now exhale slowly and completely counting up to 5. Repeat this deep breathing exercise 4 to 5 times daily to deal with hyperventilation syndrome. As you practice this particular deep breathing exercise for hyperventilation syndrome, try to increase your breathing when exhaling.

Dealing with Hyperventilation Syndrome by Managing Stress

It is important that patients suffering from hyperventilation syndrome learn to cope with stressful situations, as stress in the main cause of hyperventilation syndrome. For combating stress, there are a number of options, such as patient can seek help from a clinical psychologist. Patient can try to view the stressful situation from a different angle or a different perspective to help deal with stress and hyperventilation syndrome.

Patients suffering from stress and hyperventilation syndrome should also seek support from family, friends or work colleagues to help tackle the sources of your stress and hence manage and prevent hyperventilation syndrome.

If the cause of hyperventilation syndrome (such as stress) is effectively managed and dealt with, then the symptoms of hyperventilation syndrome reduce drastically and even disappear. By managing your stress levels, patients suffering from hyperventilation syndrome can get back to leading a healthier and comfortable life.

When to Seek Emergent Care in Hyperventilation Syndrome?

If the patient also has a history of heart disease and suffers from hyperventilation syndrome, then immediately call 911.

What is the Difference Between Hyperventilation and Hyperventilation Syndrome?

Hyperventilation simply means breathing excessively or more than necessary. Hyperventilation syndrome refers to hyperventilation, which is caused by a panic attack or anxiety and is also associated with other symptoms and changes in the body.

Is Hyperventilation Syndrome Life-Threatening?

Hyperventilation syndrome is not a life-threatening condition; however, it can cause substantial decrease in carbon dioxide. The cause of Hyperventilation Syndrome is stress and anxiety; and can be very scary and can aggravate the existing anxiety thus worsening hyperventilation syndrome. This is a vicious cycle, which if left untreated can cause severe muscle spasms and lead to loss of consciousness also. So, we can conclude that hyperventilation syndrome may not be a life-threatening condition, but nonetheless requires immediate and correct medical care.

Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA
Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA Pain Assist Inc. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:December 4, 2018

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