What is Hyperventilation?

Hyperventilation is simply over breathing, but there are two kinds, to understand them, we first need to look at how breathing is measured and determine what is normal breathing and what is over breathing.

 We measure two things:

  1. The respiration rate: This is the number of breaths a person takes per minute. The rate is usually measured when a person is at rest and involves counting the number of breaths taken for one minute. A normal respiratory rate for an adult is 12 to 16 breaths a minute.

  2. The tidal volume is the size of each breath taken in. In a healthy adult, the tidal volume is approximately 500 ml (.05 litre) per inspiration.

If we multiply these (12 x .05) we end up with what is called Normal Minute Ventilation. This is around 6L/minute.

What is Acute Hyperventilation?

Acute Hyperventilation is rapid breathing that has a Minute Ventilation rate as much as 20L/minute. It lasts for a short time, up to a half an hour and can be triggered by some of the following:

  • Extreme fear
  • Tightness of the chest
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Pain
  • Fever
  • Balance problems

What is Chronic Hyperventilation?

Less obvious, however, but far more prevalent, is the habit of consistently taking too much air in during day-to-day life, in rest and in times of light physical exertion.

Known as chronic hyperventilation it is characterised by breathing through the mouth and using the upper chest. Often times people who have chronic hyperventilation sigh and yawn frequently. They give their bed partners a hard time as they are usually loud snorers. There is also an association between chronic hyperventilation and stress disorders like anxiety, so if you are prone to feeling anxious then it is worth to have a further look at your breathing. You can find if you have a tendency to over breathe using a simple breath hold test called the Control Pause.

In our clinics, when we look at a person’s breathing we observe them from the moment they walk into the room: checking if they breathe through their nose or mouth, observing the size of each breath, noting whether their breath movements are from the upper chest or abdomen, measuring an approximate number of breaths per minute, and seeing if there is a natural pause between breaths. The purpose of determining chronic hyperventilation is not necessarily to measure the amount of oxygen a person is breathing in, but how little carbon dioxide is retained by the blood supply.

For normal, healthy functioning, the body requires a certain amount of both oxygen and carbon dioxide. When we speak to groups at workshops, it is unanimously recognised that oxygen is a gas essential to life, but students are often surprised to hear that carbon dioxide is not just a waste gas. In terms of oxygen delivery, the two must work hand in hand.