Bradypnea: causes and treatments

Bradypnea is a medical term used to refer to a lower than normal breathing rate. Respiration is the process by which the lungs carry out gas exchange. With it, the body releases carbon dioxide to the outside and captures oxygen.

Oxygen is essential for cells to carry out their functions. When there are fewer breaths than usual more carbon dioxide accumulates and the amount of oxygen is reduced, which can have complex consequences.

Bradypnea has multiple causes and not all of them are malignant. However, in certain situations it can be indicative of seriousness. In this article we explain everything you need to know about the subject.

What is bradypnea?

The word 'bradypnea' comes from the Greek. Bradys means 'slow' and pnein means 'breathe'. According to an article by the University of Navarra Clinic, this medical term is used to refer to a respiratory rate lower than normal.

Normality is determined based on the age and activity level of each person. In an adult, breathing between 12 and 20 times per minute is considered normal. When the frequency is below 12 there is bradypnea.

In addition, the box is usually considered when it is held for more than 2 minutes. The problem is that this term tends to be confused with others, such as apnea or dyspnea.

Dyspnea refers to shortness of breath or a feeling of shortness of breath. Apnea, on the other hand, consists of the cessation of breathing temporarily. Both bradypnea and apnea appear in certain people during sleep.

The opposite of bradypnea is tachypnea. In this case, the respiratory rate goes faster than normal, which can lead to problems. A person is considered to be tachypneic when they breathe more than 25 times per minute.

As stated in an article by the Fundación Argentina del Tórax, one of the most common causes of slow breathing is alcohol intoxication. However, there can be many others, as we will explain in the next section.

What are the causes of bradypnea?

Bradypnea as such is not a pathology, but a sign or symptom that can appear in many situations. As we have pointed out in the previous section, one of the main causes is alcohol intoxication.

This is because alcohol acts on the center of the breath, inhibiting it. This action causes breathing to slow down. However, it is not the only substance that can cause this problem. There are many other drugs, such as opioids, that are also associated with it.

In fact, the combination of benzodiazepines and alcohol is considered one of the most important factors risk of respiratory depression. Benzodiazepines are anxiolytic drugs that are widely used in the population.

Alcohol is a respiratory depressant due to its action on the central nervous system.

Other substances associated with bradypnea

Bradypnea can appear as a result of multiple substances. Another of the most important toxins is carbon monoxide.

It is used relatively frequently to commit suicide. It is a gas that can cause death when breathed in at high concentrations, because it produces a decrease in respiratory rate and intoxication.

Certain medications used to perform surgical procedures that can cause slow breathing. For example, muscle relaxants (which are usually benzodiazepines), anesthetics or pain treatments (opioid derivatives). Therefore, it is important to follow up later.

Brain problems

Respiration is a complex process that is coordinated by different parts of the brain. Conscious breathing is determined by the brain. However, there are also respiratory centers in the brain stem.

These centers allow breathing to be maintained in certain conditions in which the brain suffers some alteration. For example, when there is a tumor or traumatic injury. However, they trigger slow breathing if they take control of the act.

Electrolyte and hormonal imbalances

As we have explained, there are many factors that influence the rate and depth of breathing. Another reason why bradypnea may appear is the imbalance of certain electrolytes, such as potassium or calcium.

It also appears in certain metabolic diseases, such as hypothyroidism. Thyroid hormones are responsible for regulating energy consumption and body temperature, among other processes. When they are lower than normal, the respiratory rate may decrease.

Risk factors for bradypnea

An article published in EcuRed explains a series of factors that increase the risk of bradypnea. Some of them are old age, smoking or suffer from heart disease. The same is true when a person enters shock.

It has also been linked to a very low body temperature (hypothermia) and people who regularly engage in vigorous exercise. In the latter case it would not have to imply gravity.

Symptoms and complications of bradypnea

Bradypnea can alter the levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the body. Most of the symptoms that appear are due to lack of oxygen. Fatigue, weakness, confusion, or lightheadedness are common.

Also, people often feel dizzy or have an imminent feeling of fainting. Headache and chest pain are other common signs, as are poor coordination and memory problems.

The fact that the oxygen in the blood decreases can lead to complications. This is called hypoxemia. As explained in an article by Bell Marra Health, bradypnea increases the number of fainting spells and heart problems.

In fact, organs and tissues can be severely damaged. In the most severe cases it causes cardiac arrest and even death. Other complications are respiratory acidosis and hypercapnia (high levels of carbon dioxide in the blood).

Athletes and athletes can have an expected and logical bradypnea for their training that does not represent risk.

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Available treatments

Bradypnea does not have to be treated in all cases. As we have pointed out, it often appears benign, either in people accustomed to intense physical activity or during sleep.

Therefore, it is necessary to discriminate in which cases this sign suggests seriousness. It depends on the cause and the health circumstances of the patient.

For example, if bradypnea is associated with a heart problem, it is usually necessary to establish a medical approach. The idea is to manage the oxygen that the body needs. For this there are different forms of artificial ventilation.

On the other hand, if the cause of the bradypnea is a toxic one, supportive treatment is also usually required. In some cases, antidotes for the substance that caused the condition can be used. This is the case of benzodiazepine poisoning, which can be treated with flumacenyl.

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Bradypnea is a sign, not a disease

It is important that we emphasize again that bradypnea is a decrease in respiratory rate. It is usually considered when taking less than 12 breaths per minute for more than 2 minutes.

The point is that this symptom can appear for multiple reasons, such as intoxication by alcohol or other drugs, or as a result of certain underlying pathologies. Not all cases suggest life-threatening, so it is necessary to discern what the cause is before establishing an approach.