Impact of breath holding on cardiovascular respiratory and cerebrovascular health

Sports Med. 2012 Jun 1;42(6):459-72. doi: 10.2165/11599260-000000000-00000.


Human underwater breath-hold diving is a fascinating example of applied environmental physiology. In combination with swimming, it is one of the most popular forms of summer outdoor physical activities. It is performed by a variety of individuals ranging from elite breath-hold divers, underwater hockey and rugby players, synchronized and sprint swimmers, spear fishermen, sponge harvesters and up to recreational swimmers. Very few data currently exist concerning the influence of regular breath holding on possible health risks such as cerebrovascular, cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. A literature search of the PubMed electronic search engine using keywords 'breath-hold diving' and 'apnoea diving' was performed. This review focuses on recent advances in knowledge regarding possibly harmful physiological changes and/or potential health risks associated with breath-hold diving. Available evidence indicates that deep breath-hold dives can be very dangerous and can cause serious acute health problems such a collapse of the lungs, barotrauma at descent and ascent, pulmonary oedema and alveolar haemorrhage, cardiac arrest, blackouts, nitrogen narcosis, decompression sickness and death. Moreover, even shallow apnoea dives, which are far more frequent, can present a significant health risk. The state of affairs is disturbing as athletes, as well as recreational individuals, practice voluntary apnoea on a regular basis. Long-term health risks of frequent maximal breath holds are at present unknown, but should be addressed in future research. Clearly, further studies are needed to better understand the mechanisms related to the possible development or worsening of different clinical disorders in recreational or competitive breath holding and to determine the potential changes in training/competition regimens in order to prevent these adverse events.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Apnea / physiopathology*
  • Decompression Sickness
  • Diving / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Inert Gas Narcosis
  • Respiration
  • Risk
  • Swimming / physiology*