416 Ilam Road, Fendalton, Christchurch 8052

Clinic Hours: Monday - Friday 7am - 8pm

416 Ilam Road, Fendalton, Christchurch 8052

Clinic Hours: Monday-Friday 7am-8pm

Health Effects of Disordered Breathing in Children and Young Adults: A Guide for Parents

Published by Better Health Osteopathy on 19 February 2024, Back Pain

Hyperventilation syndrome, or ‘over breathing’, is a common condition, especially in children and younger adults, where disordered breathing patterns can be linked to a range of distressing symptoms such as anxiety, low energy, back pain, neck pain, headaches and irritable bowel symptoms. Hyperventilation syndrome can affect individuals of all ages; however, younger females are predominantly more affected.

Breathing might seem like a simple activity we perform effortlessly, especially given that we do this more than 20,000 times per day.  But the reality is that many individuals, including children and young adults, can suffer greatly from hyperventilation syndrome, which often goes undiagnosed and can have significant health consequences for children and younger adults. In fact, approximately 70% of our patients in this age group whom we treat in our clinic suffer from hyperventilation syndrome.

A significant hurdle in dealing with hyperventilation syndrome is that those affected often don’t recognise their breathing is dysfunctional, which leads to a lack of diagnosis and appropriate treatment. Many of our patients present seeking treatment for individual symptoms like headaches, neck pain, jaw pain, or IBS, not realising these may be linked to their breathing disorder.

This article will delve into the symptoms and fundamental causes of hyperventilation, and we will examine how osteopathy can play a crucial role in improving breathing mechanics and its importance in treating hyperventilation, ultimately contributing to the overall health and well-being of children and younger adults.

Anatomy of Breathing

Normal breathing, often referred to as diaphragmatic breathing, is characterised by the harmonious movement of the upper and lower sections of the rib cage and the abdomen. This type of breathing necessitates the effective use and operation of the diaphragm and ribs. It ensures a proper balance of oxygen and the expulsion of carbon dioxide from the body. In contrast, upper rib breathing, or hyperventilation syndrome, is marked by the predominant movement of the upper chest and rib cage, with minimal engagement of the lower rib cage.

What is Hyperventilation Syndrome?

Hyperventilation syndrome is when the breathing rate is excessively high, often greater than 25 breaths per minute, whereas the normal range is 10-14 breaths per minute.

This leads to an imbalance in the body’s carbon dioxide and oxygen levels. This condition is typically associated with an underlying psychological issue, such as stress or anxiety, coupled with mechanical dysfunction where the rib cage and diaphragm have become restricted and, therefore, cannot properly assist the breathing processes appropriately. Hyperventilation syndrome can cause numerous individuals to experience symptoms of low mood, anxiety, back pain, neck pain, headaches and IBS symptoms.


What Causes Hyperventilation Syndrome?

The exact cause of hyperventilation syndrome is not fully understood, but it seems to be related to an abnormal respiratory response to stress and poor breathing mechanics. In these cases, the excessive breathing serves as a response to emotional distress.

These individuals may rely on upper rib breathing instead of diaphragmatic breathing. This can trigger a “suffocation alarm” in the brain, releasing excitatory neurotransmitters and causing symptoms like palpitations, tremors, anxiety, and sweating. The person is in ‘fight for flight’ mode.

Poor breathing mechanics can also contribute to dysfunctional breathing and is most often overlooked when treating hyperventilation syndrome. The diaphragm, one of the main muscles involved in breathing, is usually held in a contracted state, making it hard to engage during breathing. There is often dysfunction of the ribs, thoracic spine, and the respiratory muscles of the neck, which all play a vital role in assisting the breathing process.


Why Should We Be Concerned About Hyperventilation Syndrome?

Hyperventilation syndrome is characterised by excessive breathing, which can lead to decreased carbon dioxide levels in the blood, a condition known as respiratory alkalosis.

Hyperventilation can also affect the autonomic nervous system, causing autonomic dysregulation, where patients are kept in a constant state of ‘fight or flight’ where they are continuously exposed to the stress hormone cortisol.


The Connection Between Hyperventilation and Anxiety

Hyperventilation is frequently associated with anxiety. Anxious thoughts can lead to accelerated breathing rates, while hyperventilation can amplify anxiety symptoms. Moreover, hyperventilation can cause a drop in blood carbon dioxide levels, potentially leading to headaches, light-headedness, and a tingling sensation.


Hyperventilation’s Link to Neck Pain, Headaches, and Jaw Pain

Hyperventilation can increase muscle tension due to rapid and shallow breathing patterns, especially around the neck, jaws, and shoulders. The excessive use of breathing muscles may lead to strain and discomfort, manifesting as neck pain, headaches, and shoulder and jaw pain.


Hyperventilation’s Impact on Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

The act of hyperventilating can have an indirect effect on the gastrointestinal system, particularly for those predisposed to anxiety or stress-related ailments such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). The connection between the gut and the brain is significant, as emotional stress can lead to physiological changes in the gastrointestinal system. Anxiety and stress caused by hyperventilation can also aggravate IBS symptoms, causing abdominal pain, bloating, and changes in bowel patterns such as constipation and diarrhoea.


Common Symptoms of Hyperventilation Include

Due to the change in the biochemistry of the blood, hyperventilation syndrome can lead to a wide range of symptoms, including:

  • Anxiety, Panic Attacks, Foggy brain
  • Headaches
  • Neck Pain, Jaw Pain
  • Tightness in the chest and sore shoulders
  • Difficulty taking a deep breath
  • Dizziness, feeling faint
  • Frequent deep sighs or yawning
  • Tingling or numbness around the mouth or in the hands
  • Digestive issues, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) such as constipation or diarrhoea, and abdominal pain.
  • Low energy and fatigue

How Can Osteopathy Help?

Hyperventilation syndrome is often overlooked when individuals present with this wide range of symptoms. Osteopathy is a form of manual medicine that views the person as a whole and will consider all of these symptoms when formulating a treatment plan.

Osteopathic treatment will aim to re-establish proper breathing mechanics and functionality. Osteopaths work to correct issues in the diaphragm, ribs, neck, and pelvis, which can significantly enhance a patient’s ability to breathe more effortlessly.  Our osteopaths will also teach our patients several breathing retraining techniques so that they can manage their breathing effectively by themselves.

Once proper breathing mechanics have been fully restored, the patient will breathe much more efficiently, which will, in turn, help to balance the pH levels of the blood. Efficient breathing will also calm down the ‘fight or flight’ response from an overreactive sympathetic nervous system, and the patient should feel much calmer, have more energy, and be in a much better place to deal with their anxiety and stress if present.

Other Interventions Required To Treat Hyperventilation Syndrome?

Some patients may still have some underlying long-term stress and anxiety that may need some further treatment, such as psychological interventions or medication. At Better Health Osteopathy, we are exceptionally fortunate to have our in-house psychologist (Jacqueline Harris), whom we can also refer to if needed.


Hyperventilation Syndrome is a common condition where abnormal breathing patterns can lead to distressing symptoms. Understanding the biochemistry behind this condition can help patients grasp the importance of proper breathing mechanics, breathing retraining exercises and managing stress to alleviate symptoms and improve overall well-being. Osteopathic interventions and breathing techniques can be vital in managing hyperventilation and alleviating associated symptoms. If you or your child is experiencing hyperventilation or related symptoms, consult with one of our osteopaths to receive an appropriate diagnosis, treatment and support.

Contact the team at Better Health Osteopathy in Christchurch today. Call 027 755 5700 or book online.

Our Osteopaths are here to help!

Should you require a consultation with our psychologist, Jacqueline Harris. She can be contacted on 027 497 8418 or [email protected].

Better Health Osteopathy

Lorraine Herity is the Clinic Director of Better Health Osteopathy in Christchurch, New Zealand. She previously worked in Osteopathic clinics in London and Ireland, before moving to New Zealand. Lorraine trained at the British School of Osteopathy in London, where she gained her Master of Osteopathy (M.Ost). Lorraine is a dedicated and passionate Osteopath. Her main aim is to help her patients regain their health and to return her patients back to their everyday activities, in as quick a time as possible. Lorraine is also a clinic tutor on the Osteopathic Course in Ara and relishes the opportunity to teach the next generation of osteopaths.