a woman with her head tilted back, breathing while her hair is tossed by the wind

Dysfunctional Breathing and Asthma

It is easy to take breathing for granted, unless you suddenly find yourself short of breath or breathing too quickly. If this happens and your breathing feels abnormal, you may have a condition known as dysfunctional breathing.1

Dysfunctional breathing can be hard to diagnose. People with a heart condition, sleep apnea, a chronic pain condition, or asthma may have dysfunctional breathing. An overload of stress or a chronic illness also can bring it on. However, dysfunctional breathing can also be present in a person who does not have a medical condition.1

What does dysfunctional breathing feel like?

Besides shortness of breath, dysfunctional breathing can cause:2

A person with dysfunctional breathing may also hyperventilate, meaning that they breathe deeply and rapidly. This is sometimes called overbreathing.2

The symptoms of dysfunctional breathing can be very similar to the symptoms people experience with disorders like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). It can also worsen certain conditions like COPD.3

Asthma vs dysfunctional breathing

If you have asthma, you may be prone to dysfunctional breathing. About 1 out of every 3 women with asthma and 1 out of every 5 men with asthma have dysfunctional breathing. All told, around 30 percent of people who have asthma also have dysfunctional breathing. People whose asthma is hard to treat and those who have trouble controlling their asthma are more likely to have dysfunctional breathing.1-3

Learn to breathe easier

Dysfunctional breathing does not respond to asthma medicine. However, breathing retraining can be effective for people who have asthma and dysfunctional breathing. Also, research shows that breathing training can improve your quality of life.1,4

In breathing retraining, you may be taught how to breathe normally both when you are resting and when you are active. A respiratory physiotherapist can teach you techniques that will help. These techniques can be useful both when you are at rest or when you are engaged in an activity. You may learn how to slow down your rate of breathing, to breathe through your nose, and breathe deeply.1

Certain breathing therapies are used to treat dysfunctional breathing. These therapies include traditional Hatha yoga and the Buteyko breathing technique. The exercises taught in the Buteyko method promote nose-breathing, as well as taking in an effective amount of air.2,5

Breathing therapies often rely on an instructor to show the person how to do the exercises correctly. The person then needs to practice the exercises at home as well as when they are having an episode of dysfunctional breathing.2

People who live with asthma and dysfunctional breathing tend to feel anxious about their breathing. Research shows that they also have a lower quality of life. For these people, breathing training includes relaxation training and stress-reduction strategies. Breathing training combined with relaxation techniques can help not only with dysfunctional breathing but also with various symptoms related to stress.2,4

When to seek help immediately

If you have sudden, severe shortness of breath that is affecting your ability to function, do not delay. Call 911 or your local emergency number, or have someone take you to the emergency room. You also should seek emergency medical care if this shortness of breath goes hand-in-hand with fainting, chest pain, nausea, a change in mental alertness, or a bluish tinge to your lips or your nails. These could be signs of a heart attack or a pulmonary embolism.6

Do you experience dysfunctional breathing in addition to asthma? Share your experience with us.

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