Has your heart ever started racing for no apparent reason? It can be quite scary, can’t it?
A racing heart, also known as tachycardia, isn’t always a cause for concern.
It may have been triggered by drinking too much caffeine or because you’re anxious about something.
Sometimes, however, tachycardia may begin to disrupt your heart’s normal functions and could lead to serious heart complications, such as strokes, heart failure, or sudden cardiac arrest.
That’s why it’s important to understand your heart and the signs and causes of tachycardia, so you can keep your heart healthy and monitor any potential changes to your heart’s natural rhythm.
What is Tachycardia?
Tachycardia occurs when your heart beats faster than normal, and is a common heart rhythm disorder (also known as an arrhythmia).
Even though your heart rate naturally increases while you’re exercising, or as a response to illness, trauma, or stress (sinus tachycardia), tachycardia increases your heartbeat in both the lower and upper chambers while you’re resting.
Electrical signals control your heart rate, and these signals rapidly increase when there’s an abnormality in your heart. This quickens your heart rate to over 100 beats per minute (this is normally 60 to 100 when you’re resting).
Tachycardia can also occur in children, but in newborns and infants, a heart rate over 150 beats per minute is classed as tachycardia.
What Are the Different Types?
There are various types of tachycardia and these are distinguished by the cause and origin of the fast heartbeat. Common types include:
This originates above the ventricles of your heart where electrical signals are fired abnormally and interfere with the signals that come from your heart’s inbuilt pacemaker, the sinoatrial node (SA node). This condition tends to be present when you’re born and is the leading cause of Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome, where the electrical signals pass down an extra pathway.
This originates in the lower chambers (the ventricles) of your heart where, again, electrical signals are fired abnormally and interfere with the natural pulse of the SA node. This means your ventricles can’t fill with blood to pump it around the rest of your body. Episodes of ventricular tachycardia can be brief, lasting a few seconds without any detrimental effects. However, episodes that last longer than this can be life-threatening.
This is often your body’s natural response to a situation, such as distress, anxiety, exercise, or fever. Therefore, even though your heart is beating faster than normal, it’s still beating properly. Other less common causes include heart muscle damage, increased thyroid activity, anemia, or a hemorrhage.
Post Orthostatic Tachycardia
Occurring after sitting up or standing up, postural orthostatic tachycardia (POTS) often causes fainting, dizziness, and shortness of breath, along with an abnormally fast heartbeat. It is most common in adolescents and women between the ages of 15 to 50.
What Causes Tachycardia?
As we have seen, there are a number of different things that can cause tachycardia.
For example, sinus tachycardia can be induced through stress, strenuous exercise, recreational drugs, and certain medications.
Supraventricular tachycardia is more likely to affect those who drink too much alcohol, smoke a lot, or consume a lot of caffeine.
Ventricular tachycardia is linked to more severe heart disorders, like sarcoidosis where there’s a lack of oxygen. The exact cause of post orthostatic tachycardia is often difficult to determine.
There are, however, certain risk factors that can increase the strain on your heart or may damage your heart tissue, therefore increasing your risk. These include:
- High blood pressure
- Underactive or overactive thyroid
- Heart disease
- Sleep apnea
- Heavy caffeine use
- Heavy alcohol use
- Psychological anxiety or stress
- Using recreational drugs
Other risk factors include old age, and if there’s a history of tachycardia in your family (or other cases of arrhythmia) this may increase your chance of developing it.
What Are the Signs and Symptoms?
Some people won’t notice any symptoms when they have non-life-threatening forms of this heart condition. But more harmful types can induce some worrying signs and symptoms, regardless of what type of tachycardia you have. These include:
- Chest pain
- Shortness of breath
- Palpitations (where your heart feels as though it’s beating too fast)
In rare, extreme cases, you may fall unconscious or suffer a cardiac arrest.
How Can It Be Treated?
For cases of sinus tachycardia, your doctor will look at your lifestyle to try and pinpoint what’s causing an influx in your heart rate, which may mean you need to take medication to reduce your fever or take steps to reduce your stress levels.
If you’re diagnosed with supraventricular tachycardia, you may need to quit smoking, get more sleep, or reduce your alcohol or caffeine intake.
For ventricular tachycardia, the heart’s electrical signals may need controlling through medication or a defibrillator may be able to reset them.
Finally, in POTS cases, you may need to make some lifestyle changes (e.g. drinking more water, eating a healthy diet, and exercising more) and take certain types of medication to improve your symptoms.
A rapid heartbeat doesn’t always require treatment, but if you are conscious of an irregular heartbeat, you should always consult your doctor.