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Forum Name: Miscellaneous Chest Diseases

Question: difficulty catching breath


 monika06 - Wed Nov 18, 2009 3:10 pm

I am 21 years old, 5'4 and 120 pounds. Since I was 15 I have had several different spells of difficulty breathing when doing nothing more than sitting. It feels as if I cannot catch a deep and satisfying breath. I will take many short and inhibited feeling breaths. Finally, after sighing and yawning many times, I can catch one good breath. I immediately feel better afterwards. Then the short breaths will return. These episodes can last as long as a few hours and happen probably once or twice a month. Sometimes they are worse than others.
In the past it has caused my hands and feet to become numb and caused me to become very lightheaded. After the first episode I went to the doctor and had underwent a few different tests. I was young so I don't accurately remember what they did. I remember an asthma and blood test which both found nothing. They suggested it was a panic attack. I did not feel panicked about anything prior to the episode. However the first time I was around several people who were smoking cigarettes (I was not). Since then, nothing in particular seems to set it off. I am most interested in finding out if this is something I should shrug off as insignificant, or something I should seek medical care for.
Thank you.
 John Kenyon, CNA - Sun Dec 20, 2009 2:42 am

User avatar Hello -- What you describe (and especially the words you use to describe it) is classic for hyperventilation syndrome,which can manifest with chronic generalized anxiety (GAD) or may precipitate panic attacks with hyperventilation predominating. While it is possible there could be a physical cause it is unlikely given your very detailed description. What happens is one begins to sigh deeply (and unawares). This throws off too much CO2, which upsets the PH balance in the bloodstream, sending the brain the message breathing isn't especially important. Since breathing is a largely voluntary function driven by habit and autonomic nervous guidance, over-awareness of one's breathing can lead to faulty breathing patterns, hyperventilation, and ultimately, by extension, feelings of diffcult or non-satisfactory respirations, numbness and tingling in the extremities and around the mouth, then lightheadedness and, sometimes, carpal and/or pedal spasm and even momentary fainting. While all this is benign, since the patient is unaware of what's actually going on, it produces a great deal of alarm (panic) and sometimes anticipatory anxiety, resulting in further hyperventilation.

While some patients are able to unlearn this faulty breathing pattern it is generally necessary to refer them to someone who practices cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), an interactive and self-limited variant of psychotherapy different from conventional and open-ended "talk" therapy. Often a combination of the two may help find the root cause of the problem, but managing the breathing problem is almost exclusively a function of short-term CBT.

I hope this is helpful. Please follow up with us here as needed. Good luck to you.

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