What are breathing pattern disorders?

Breathing is a simple, effective wellbeing tool.

It is also crucial for our existence.

We breathe around 20,000 times a day, and we do it without thinking too much about it.

Sometimes, our breathing’s natural rhythm can be interrupted, and this can lead to a breathing pattern disorder.

This usually means something is affecting our breath pattern, for example:

  • Using the upper chest muscles to breathe, rather than the diaphragm
  • Mouth breathing, rather than nose breathing; or
  • Breaths too fast, or too large

These can all lead to us breathing more than what the body needs, or over-breathing as it’s often referred to.

It can impact a person’s day to day functioning, their psychological well-being and overall quality of life.

Breathing diagram; 1. inhale, one, two. 2. Purse your lips. 3. Breathe out slowly.

How does this happen? 

When we over-breathe, we exhale too much carbon dioxide, lowering our body’s pH level, leading to a chemical imbalance.

This imbalance can affect many parts of our system, resulting in symptoms and side effects such as:

  • Frequent coughing and throat clearing
  • Sighing and yawning
  • Feeling disproportionately short of breath during activity or when talking
  • Feelings of air hunger
  • Experiencing dizziness or fainting
  • Headaches or blurred vision
  • Pins and needles in the extremities or around the mouth
  • Feeling ‘on edge’, anxious or experiencing panic attacks
  • Easily overwhelmed
  • Experiencing chest pain or tightness, or heart palpitations*

*Some of these symptoms can also indicate other serious health problems, and your physiotherapist may need to refer you to a doctor for further investigations to rule these out prior to commencing treatment.

Why does this happen?

Many triggers for a breathing pattern disorder have been identified, and they can vary for everyone.

  • The cause could be anatomical – resulting from things like poor posture, a deviated septum in your nose; or due to hormonal changes like those associated with pregnancy, breastfeeding and menopause.
  • Chronic illnesses like sinusitis, asthma or allergies are associated with breathing pattern disorders. People living with acute, or chronic or chronic pain can also experience disorders like these.
  • A breathing pattern disorder might also be initiated by a psychological trigger like stress, anxiety, loss, or trauma (past or present).

For example, if you caught a bad cold or flu, and while you were unwell your breathing changed to become faster and shallower.

This is not an unusual reaction to an illness. However, cause for concern comes from the changed breathing lasting after you have recovered.

The effect of this fast and shallow breathing pattern becomes your regular breathing rhythm, and a breathing pattern disorder develops.

How are they being treated?

The first step in restoring the normal balance of your body, is recognising that your symptoms may be due to a breathing pattern disorder. The next step is retraining how you breathe.

Retraining your breathing involves a lot of education.

Specifically, how the breathing/respiratory system works, what normal breathing looks like, and how abnormal breathing patterns can contribute to symptoms.

The next step involves creating an awareness of a person’s breathing pattern throughout the day, and throughout different activities - particularly noticing their breathing when they become symptomatic.

Once a person has this understanding and self-awareness, they can work to correct their breathing pattern.

The key aspects of retraining are teaching someone to breathe through their nose, breathe with their diaphragm, and to slow their rate of breathing – NOSE, LOW, and SLOW.

If you think you have a breathing pattern disorder, get in touch with APM. We have physiotherapist trained in the Bradcliff® breathing method, an evidence based technique for the assessment and treatment of breathing pattern disorders.

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