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Patient information A-Z

What is Hyperventilation?

Hyperventilation is over-breathing, that is breathing more than is necessary to meet the body's requirements.

Over-breathing is a perfectly normal reaction to any stressful situation. Generally, when this event has passed, breathing will return to a normal rate and depth.

Sometimes, as a result of prolonged stress or a physical trigger, a continual pattern of over-breathing can occur, whereby the breathing pattern does not return to normal. This is known as chronic hyperventilation. It may also be referred to as a breathing pattern disorder or dysfunctional breathing.

How do I know if I am over-breathing?

You may be aware of some or all of these symptoms. Here are some of the most commonly experienced:

  • Frequent yawning and sighing
  • Feeling breathless after relatively minor exercise
  • Difficulty co-ordinating breathing and talking and/or eating
  • Pins and needles in hands/arms/around mouth
  • Palpitations, a feeling of increased activity of the heart
  • Feeling permanently exhausted and unable to concentrate for no apparent reason
  • Muscular aches and tension around the neck/shoulders/jaw  Light-headedness

What can I do to help myself?

Breathing Control

People with chronic hyperventilation syndrome often breathe incorrectly and overuse their upper chest muscles when breathing in. They also tend to breathe with fast, shallow breaths interspersed with the occasional deep breath. Regular practice of a breathing control technique may improve your breathing pattern. Please ask for a Breathing Control leaflet.


Speaking quickly and taking large gasps between long sentences can make your breathing worse. Try to slow down your speech, pausing and taking a small breath after each sentence.


Taking time to relax can be a very effective way to gain control of your breathing. Please ask for a Relaxation leaflet.


Try to take regular balanced meals. If you tend to snack, avoid foods high in carbohydrate such as chocolate bars or crisps as they make your sugar levels rise and then fall rapidly. This can act as a trigger that makes you over-breathe. Avoid drinks that contain stimulants such as caffeine as these can also trigger your body to over-breathe.

Posture Correction

Maintaining a good posture is essential to a good breathing pattern. If you are hunched or slouched there is not enough room for your diaphragm to move freely. Sitting and standing up straight will enable you to use your diaphragm and thus breathe more effectively.

Other sources of information

The book Hyperventilation Syndrome: Breathing Pattern Disorders and How to Overcome Them by Dinah Bradley.

Who can I contact for help?

Neurological Physiotherapy on Tel: 01223 217568

We are smoke-free

Smoking is not allowed anywhere on the hospital campus. For advice and support in quitting, contact your GP or the free NHS stop smoking helpline on 0800 169 0 169.

Other formats

Help accessing this information in other formats is available. To find out more about the services we provide, please visit our patient information help page (see link below) or telephone 01223 256998.

Contact us

Cambridge University Hospitals
NHS Foundation Trust
Hills Road, Cambridge

Telephone +44 (0)1223 245151