Chronic hyperventilation, or Hyperventilation Syndrome, is so commonly misdiagnosed, it has been referred to as a silent epidemic. An estimated 5-10% of us are chronic over-breathers, so breathing problems are certainly not rare, but getting help for them is often difficult because of a lack of recognition.
Symptoms of chronic hyperventilation include air hunger or a feeling of being unable to take a deep breath; frequent sighing or yawning; tingling in the hands or around the mouth; dizziness and confusion; a racing heart often with chest pain; poor exercise tolerance and muscle fatigue; disturbed sleep.
The symptoms described are not peculiar to chronic hyperventilation and they can mimic other issues such as heart problems. This is perhaps why people with these symptoms can go from doctor to doctor searching for answers. Hyperventilation Syndrome was referred to by Dr. Claude Lum, a British chest physician who specialized in this area, as “fat file syndrome” because by the time sufferers reached his door their case files were inches thick.
The symptoms of chronic hyperventilation are worrisome and warrant thorough investigation, but these usually turn out to be normal and the sufferer is left wondering what is wrong with them. Doctors often tell their patients it is an anxiety problem, treatable with anti-anxiety medication. This might numb the symptoms for awhile but it does little to treat the underlying mechanism that is causing the problem.
Hyperventilation Syndrome is often preceded by a stressful event or an ongoing, high-pressure lifestyle. People who use their voice a lot – teachers, news anchors, actors, singers – are especially prone to chronic hyperventilation. Greg Storkan, an opera singer in Chicago describes his problems with Hyperventilation Syndrome. “I will have to stop practicing for a time because my entire face has gone numb, as well as my hands and knees.”
Symptoms can arise at any age, (the twenties and thirties being the most common) and they usually come and go but get worse over time.
Treatment for chronic hyperventilation involves learning breathing strategies aimed at reducing the volume of air breathed. With effective breathing re-training and stress management, symptoms should cease or rarely occur. However, clinics that specialize in treating breathing disorders are scarce and consequently we get inquiries from people all over the world who are looking for help.