What is Tachycardia?
Tachycardia is when the heart beats faster than standard — over 100 times per minute. Stress, exercise, and fear can set our hearts racing as a normal physiological response. Other types of tachycardia occur more regularly, with the heart rate spiking for no obvious reason. Left untreated, some forms of tachycardia can lead to serious health repercussions, including stroke and heart failure.
Types of Tachycardia
There are various types of atrial tachycardia, some more serious than others. They are generally defined by the part of the heart that causes the quickened, irregular heart rate.
Typical forms of tachycardia can be grouped into two categories: supraventricular (SVT or atrial) arrhythmias and ventricular arrhythmias.
Supraventricular tachycardia (SVT)
Supraventricular tachycardia is an abnormally fast heartbeat that affects the heart’s upper chambers. Types of SVT include:
- Atrial fibrillation (AFib) - The most common sustained arrhythmia, AFib, is a rapid, irregular heartbeat in the heart’s top chambers (atria). It can cause poor blood flow to the lower chambers (ventricles) and potential blood clots.
- Atrial flutter - Similar to AFib, an atrial flutter occurs when a short circuit in the atria’s electrical signals causes the upper chambers to beat greater than around 200 bpm
- Paroxysmal atrial tachycardia (PAT) - Paroxysmal means a sudden fit or attack. PAT is a form of arrhythmia that begins and stops suddenly in the upper chamber of the heart
- Paroxysmal supraventricular tachycardia (PSVT) - Like PAT, this type of irregular heart rhythm features a sudden onset and abrupt stop, with the heart rate reaching over 100 to 250 beats per minute
- Atrial tachycardia
- Wolff-Parkinson-White (WPW) arrhythmias - Seen in individuals with WPW syndrome, these episodes of fast heartbeats usually aren’t life-threatening
- Atrioventricular nodal reentrant tachycardia (AVNRT) - The most common type of superventricular tachycardia
Ventricular arrhythmias begin in the lower heart chambers (ventricles). Types of ventricular arrhythmias include:
- Ventricular tachycardia (Vtach or VT) - This abnormal heartbeat originates in the ventricles (lower chambers). It is faster than 110 bpm and can be dangerous or benign.
- Ventricular fibrillation (Vfib). This life-threatening arrhythmia affects the heart’s ventricles, and is often triggered by a heart attack or weak heart. Prolonged ventricular fibrillation can cause unconsciousness and death. It requires emergency treatment with an external defibrillator or resuscitation device.
Signs & Symptoms of Tachycardia
Tachycardia symptoms can vary. Some people experience no symptoms until the condition is discovered during a routine exam or diagnostic tests. Symptoms of SVT and VT can often be similar. They include the following:
- Pounding, racing heartbeat
- Sensation of your heart flopping in your chest
- Chest pain
- Shortness of breath
- Being unresponsive
- Fainting (syncope)
When the heart beats too fast, the brain and other vital organs don’t get enough blood, causing organ damage or failure. If you have an unexplained rapid heart rate, consult your doctor as soon as possible.
Seek immediate medical attention if you are experiencing shortness of breath, chest pain, dizziness/fainting, or weakness.
Causes of Atrial Tachycardia
Not all forms of tachycardia are serious. Sinus tachycardia, for example, is the heart’s natural, temporary response to stress, exercise, and dehydration. But some causes lead to more serious types of tachycardia.
The common causes of atrial tachycardia or supraventricular tachycardia are:
- Heavy alcohol consumption
- Excess caffeine
- Irregular blood pressure, high or low
- Electrolyte imbalance/dehydration
- Hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid)
- Stimulant use (methamphetamine and cocaine)
- Substance withdrawal
Some causes of ventricular tachycardia include:
- Cardiomyopathy (weak heart muscle)
- Heart disease
- Lack of blood in the coronary arteries
- Certain medications
While anyone can experience sinus tachycardia from exercise or anxiety, there are certain risk factors that can increase a person’s chances of developing a more serious form of the condition, including:
- Age - Older adults are affected more often than younger people
- Sex - Tachycardia is more common in women than men
- Family history of arrhythmias
- Stressful lifestyle
- Heavy drinking
- Heavy smoking
- Heart issues. People who have suffered a heart attack, myocarditis, heart disease, cardiomyopathy, or heart failure are more prone to tachycardia
- High blood pressure
The best way to prevent tachycardia is to take care of your heart. You can reduce your risk of developing the condition by making healthy lifestyle choices, including:
- Adopt a heart-healthy diet
- Exercise regularly
- Limit caffeine use
- Limit alcohol consumption
- Quit smoking
- Manage stress levels
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Control high cholesterol and high blood pressure through diet or medications approved by your doctor
Trust NewYork-Presbyterian for Tachycardia Care
NewYork-Presbyterian’s heart care experts are well-versed in identifying the wide spectrum of cardiac disease symptoms, including types of arrhythmias such as bradycardia and tachycardia.
If you are experiencing a rapid heart rate, it could be tachycardia or a sign of another heart condition which, left unchecked, can lead to serious health issues. Don’t hesitate to reach out to us for an appointment to find treatment for tachycardia.