One of the most comprehensive discussions on over-breathing/ hyperventilation is Dr Gregory Magarian’s (1983) aptly titled paper- Hyperventilation syndrome: A diagnosis begging for recognition. He commented that while acute hyperventilation (as in a ‘panic attack’) is fairly easy to see, the chronic form often goes unrecognised. Medical scientist and physician, Professor Konstantin Buteyko coined the term ‘hidden hyperventilation’ because of the often subtle presentation of its chronic form. His exhaustive research in Russia spanning several decades from the 1950s, showed chronic hyperventilation to be very prevalent in the general population. Chest physician, Dr Claude Lum published extensively on the hyperventilation syndrome. In his article, Hyperventilation: the tip and the iceberg (1975) he had this to say. “The many organs involved are often reflected in the number of specialists to whom the patient gets referred, and my colleagues have variously dubbed this the ‘multiple doctor’ or the ‘fat folder syndrome’. Indeed the thickness of the case file is often an important diagnostic clue.” Unfortunately diagnosis of this extremely common disorder does not appear to have improved at all since Magarian, Buteyko and Lum published their findings.
All research that has actually looked at the baseline breathing pattern in people with asthma, anxiety, snoring and sleep apnoea has found it is not normal. However, the significance of this finding is rarely considered and checking someone’s baseline breathing pattern is not part of standard medical diagnosis. People with breathing-related disorders are often steered towards surgical, pharmaceutical or appliance-based interventions without considering what they can do themselves to improve their breathing habits. (Not unlike doing gastric band surgery without first advising a patient to change their eating habits.)
What you may find if you look
My clients with asthma, anxiety or sleep apnoea often tick off more than 20 different symptoms of over-breathing/hyperventilation at their first visit. I can often see and hear them over-breathing as they fill in the form!
Janelle (42) came to see me about her heavy snoring and sleep apnoea. She also had restless legs, dizziness, chest pains, palpitations, anxiety, lots of mucus and debilitating fatigue. She had already ‘been through the mill’, having undergone a sleep study, an operation on her nose and an exercise stress test with her cardiologist. She was prescribed a range of medication. She had tried but could not adjust to sleeping with a CPAP machine – she felt claustrophobic.
As Janelle sat there completing the questionnaire, I observed her breathing. It was not fast, but was audible, very heavy and upper-chest; she sighed frequently. She marked off over 50 different breathing-related symptoms, ranking many of them moderate to severe. Janelle was amazed that I was so interested in what was happening in the day and how she breathed when awake as she had come to me solely because of her sleep-breathing problems! Eight days into breathing training, Janelle said she was sleeping well, and her husband said she no longer snored. Her chest pain and palpitations had ceased. She was calm and had more energy.
The consequences of over-breathing day after day are far reaching. The body struggles and tires as it tries to maintain equilibrium.
We have a huge problem on our hands. More and more people are mouth-breathing. Large numbers of young children are mouth-breathing. Tragically parents, teachers and health professionals rarely identify and offer advice to help prevent the escalation of this habit to chronic over-breathing with all its consequences, like tentacles reaching out to work their mischief on all body systems. Ignore your breathing at your peril. Believe these common breathing myths at your peril too!
By Tess Graham