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Stretch-Sensor Malfunction

Posted by tinako on February 17, 2012

I want to tell you about a strange lung issue I have, because not many doctors seem to know what it is, I’ve never been able to find it online, and I am running across more people lately who have it and are as perplexed as I was.

Since at least third grade I have occasionally, every couple of weeks, had difficulty with breathing.  At the time (late ’70s), asthma was uncommon, but nowadays the moment I mention a breathing difficulty, people nod and say, “Asthma, right?”

I don’t think I have asthma.  I don’t have congestion in my lungs.  I don’t feel constricted, either breathing in or out, I don’t feel light-headed, and I’ve never been afraid during an “attack.”  I can’t feel any physical difference in my airways, and I know that I’m getting sufficient air, but I feel as though I can’t take a deep enough breath.  It’s a neurological urge, just like feeling that you need to use the toilet.  Normally, when I take a deep satisfying breath, at the top of the breath I feel a virtual switch flip over, and it is very pleasurable.  But during an “attack,” no matter how deeply I breathe, that switch won’t flip.  I’ve always visualized that I can’t quite jump over a stone wall, and I keep falling back on the wrong side.  It’s frustrating and distracting, but never frightening the way a real breathing constriction would be.

What this sounds like to other people is deep sighs, repeatedly.  I remember having an episode as a kid while watching TV with my family, and my Dad saying, “Will you knock it off?  If you don’t like what we’re watching, go away.”  Others I’ve spoken to lately have had the same sort of thing happen; people ask them, “Are you upset?  Why do you keep sighing?”

I remember having episodes at all different ages, in all different situations, in different states and environments: at school, at home, at work, at a Tai Chi class.

I would mention it to doctors and they never knew what to make of it.  I looked it up online, but really had no idea what to enter.  The moment you search on anything like “breathing problem” or “deep breath,”  you are inundated with asthma links.  I asked my brother, a pulmonologist, about 15 years ago and he said he hadn’t heard of anything like that.  I started to think it was all in my head.  But after my daughter started having the same issues at Thanksgiving, I asked him again at Christmas and now he knew just what it was, so the reason for this posting is to share his explanation.

He started out mentioning that there are some nerves whose function is just to tell you the location or position of parts of your body.  So for instance there’s a nerve that tells you whether your finger is extended even if you’re not looking at it.  He said there’s one that runs around the chest, and it’s called a stretch sensor.  He said that when we’re at rest, reading or the like, we are only using about 10% of our lung capacity.  The problem with this is that the tips of the lung cavities could collapse due to body pressure, and without oxygen coming there, blood stops flowing there and bacteria can form.  So the body has a way to prevent that, and that is to have you take a deep breath, what they call a sigh breath every so often.  The brain triggers the sigh breath, and the stretch sensor verifies that you did it.  But sometimes, the stretch sensor fails to report back, and so your brain keeps urging you to take a sigh breath.

My brother said he’s never seen this written up, it’s just based on 13 years of patients coming to him with it.  It isn’t a disease, and it doesn’t progress, but he believes it’s a real feeling.  His example was that if you clench your fist for five minutes, it will truly hurt, but there is nothing for him to measure.  His patients come to him and tell him they can’t take a deep breath, but he measures them and they are fully breathing, I think he said 110%.  Also their blood oxygen is fine.  When he sees his patients later and asks them about it, they say, “Yeah, it still happens, but now that I know it’s not serious, it doesn’t seem so bad.”

I can relate.

In the last few years, especially I think since beginning meditation, it bothers me even less.  I can just be with it without giving in to the urge to sigh.  I think it goes away more quickly when I do that, in a matter of a few breaths.

I hope somehow the search engines help people find this post and it can be helpful.

[Extra Tags: can’t breathe deeply enough, lungs, not asthma]

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4 Responses to “Stretch-Sensor Malfunction”

  1. Brenda Dunham said

    This is extremely interesting to me. I must have the same thing going on. Instead of sighing, I have a strange, gasping yawn.

  2. Maggie said

    I am so glad to hear somebody identify this – I have had this for years and you are so right – doctors can’t find any problem and other people just don’t understand what you’re talking about! I’ve asked a couple of friends if they ever feel like they just aren’t getting a deep enough breath and they just look at me like I’ve lost it, then they say, “nope”…..so frustrating! I’m sorry that you have this also, but at the same time it’s reassuring to know that I actually am experiencing something legitimate and not all in my head!

    • tinako said

      It doesn’t bother me any more. Glad this post helped.

      • Maggie said

        Thank you for your help. I have begun a stretching exercise that my chiropractor suggested and it also helps. I now feel like I’m breathing much better and can finally get those solid deep breaths that I’ve wanted. Thank you for bringing this to light though so that I was reassured that I wasn’t alone in this and that it really was a condition that could be dealt with. Blessing to you.

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