Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at December 14, 2015

Heart rate is regulated by a sort of natural pacemaker within the heart, called the SA node. The node functions by autonomously sending electrical pulses through the muscle tissue of the heart, causing contraction throughout the organ. Tachycardia is a simple condition in which the heart beats at an increased or irregular pace due to an abnormality in the autonomous regulation, or the physical heart itself.


Definition & Facts

In the simplest terms, tachycardia is no more than an elevated heart rate while at rest. Typically, an adult will experience a resting heart rate of approximately 60-100 beats per minute while at rest. Those who exhibit tachycardia will have a higher heart rate in either the upper or lower chambers, or throughout the entire heart.

Abnormalities within the heart or the SA node can lead to extraneous electrical signaling, causing tachycardia to occur. It is possible that no other negatives will arise from the condition, but tachycardia can lead to further complications. Higher risk of stroke, cardiac arrest, disruptions in standard heart functionality, or even death can occur due to tachycardia. Therapies exist to combat the symptoms of tachycardia, and can help regain control of a regular heartbeat.


There are several different classifications of tachycardia, each with a vast range of potential causes. The heart is comprised of two upper chambers and two lower chambers. The upper chambers are called atria, and the lower are ventricles.

The SA node is found in the right atrium and sends electrical pulses down through the atria to the AV node, which redistributes the pulse to the ventricles, creating a normal heartbeat. Problems at any one of these junctures can create a tachycardia. Atrial fibrillation is a tachycardia that occurs when chaotic pulses through the atria cause weakened and ineffective contractions.

Atrial flutters occur when rapids beats move through the atria at a consistent rate. A supraventricular tachycardia can form when overlapping signals develop as a result of abnormal connections from somewhere above the ventricles. Ventricular tachycardia are more serious, and develop when the signals from the AV node cause the ventricles to rapidly contract.

The last type of tachycardia, and possibly the most dangerous, is ventricular fibrillation. This occurs when a fibrillation, or chaotic contractions, occur in the ventricles. Ventricular fibrillations can be fatal if not corrected in minutes. The smallest of disruptions will affect the electrical pulses regulating the heart. Some factors that might lead to tachycardia are:

This list is in no way exhaustive, and in many cases the cause of tachycardia can not be determined at all.

When to see a doctor

Due to the possible severity of a tachycardia event, it is best to plan a doctor visit as soon as the symptoms become prevalent. Some events may have a sudden onset, in which case an emergency room visit isn't out of the question, and in many cases is recommended.

For those experiencing chronic or repeated minor episodes, a scheduled doctor appointment will offer insight to the specific condition. Cardiologists are available who specialize in heart conditions, and they will provide a more comprehensive diagnosis than a family doctor. Even a single event can not be ignored, as it could lead to a more serious complication.

Any irregularities in heart rate, rhythm, pulse should be reported to a medical professional immediately to avoid exacerbating the condition. In many cases, prompt medical attention is required to avoid serious long term damage or even death.

Treatment & Therapy

Balancing heart rate while minimizing potential issues will lead to success during treatment for tachycardia. In some instances an irregular or rapid heart rate can correct itself, but a majority of the cases will require some outside interference.

One set of physical actions that can be performed to combat a fast heart rate are called Vagal maneuvers. These actions affect a nerve that regulates heart rate, called the vagus nerve. Coughing, replicating the action of a bowel movement, and the application of cold to the face can stimulate the vagus nerve into slowing the heart rate.

Anti-arrhytmic medications are available if vagal maneuvers fail to repair the issue, and can be obtained via injection from a medical institution. Anti-arrhythmic drugs can be prescribed in pill form as well, like Rythmol® and Tambocor®.

In extreme cases a procedure called cardioversion can be performed that delivers a shock directly to the heart via paddles applied to the chest. The pulse essential restarts the regular rhythm and is used in emergency situations. Other treatments are available to help permanently treat tachycardia, such as catheter ablations and pacemakers, and in rare cases surgery can be performed to repair portions of a damaged heart.

Prevention & Prophylaxis

Several steps can be taken to prevent tachycardia from occurring in the first place. Heart disease can be fought in many different ways, and a strong heart is key to avoiding tachycardia. Eating a healthy diet while maintaining an exercise routine is paramount, as obesity only raises the risk of heart disease.

High cholesterol and blood pressure should be regulated by medications, and smoking should be avoided. Alcohol must be handled in moderation, at no more than two drinks per day, to maintain a healthy heart. Recreational drug use should be avoided, especially stimulants such as cocaine. Stimulants of any sort should be taken with caution, whether in illegal recreational drugs, over-the-counter drugs, or naturally found in food.

Stimulants serve to trigger increased heart rates, and are best avoided by those with heart conditions. This would include caffeine, the ingredient within coffee and soda responsible for the energetic boost associated with those beverages. Stress of any sort should also be controlled to help prevent tachycardia.

Coping with stress in a healthy way through certain techniques will relieve excess strain on the heart. Prevention can only be completely comprehensive when combined with regular checkups from a medical professional. Routine visits will not only monitor existing conditions but will offer a watchful eye for new issues as they arise.

Most importantly, following the treatment plan set forth by a doctor, including prescriptions and therapies, will offer the most effective prevention for tachycardia.

Books about Cardiac Arrhythmias at Amazon.com