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Tachycardia: When the Heart Beats Too Fast

The information below will help you understand what it means when the heart beats too fast, which is also known as tachycardia. The described symptoms do not necessarily mean that you have significant health problems, but if the symptoms persist and you feel concerned, please contact your physician.

A man pressing against his chest with both hands

What Is Tachycardia

Playing sports, being stressed or unexpectedly running into a loved one – there are many situations in our lives that make our hearts beat faster than normal. In situations like these a fast heartbeat is of no concern.

Should you experience a fast heartbeat of over 100 beats per minute all of the time, you might have a condition that is called tachycardia.

The Different Types of Atrial Tachycardia

There are two main types of tachycardia: atrial flutter and atrial fibrillation. Let’s take a closer look at them.

Atrial flutter is when the heart beats too fast but in a regular rhythm. Usually, the heartbeat will be faster than 150 beats per minute. When the heart beats that fast the chambers cannot contract properly, and blood might start pooling in the heart. This can lead to blood clots which can cause strokes when they start traveling through the bloodstream. Atrial flutter can also progress into atrial fibrillation.

Atrial fibrillation is when the heart beats too fast and arrhythmic. Just like an atrial flutter, this can lead to the chambers not contracting properly which might cause clots that can lead to stroke. Usually, neither atrial flutter nor atrial fibrillation are by themselves life-threatening but can increase the risk of having a stroke.

What Is Ventricular Fibrillation?

We have already learned that the heart has different chambers. The upper chambers are the atria and the lower chambers are the ventricles. If the heart’s impulse to beat too fast comes from the lower chambers, we talk about ventricular fibrillation. When this happens, the heart can no longer pump blood, leading to a heart attack (cardiac arrest) within minutes. If the ventricular fibrillation cannot be stopped, it will lead to sudden cardiac death. Therefore, the main difference between an arrhythmia in the atria or the ventricles is that arrhythmia in the ventricles is life-threatening immediately.

What Causes Tachycardia?

As mentioned above, there are many harmless circumstances like sports that can cause a fast heartbeat. But of course, there are also other reasons why the heart may beat too fast. For example, several diseases may cause the heart rate to accelerate.

These include:

  • Diseases of the heart muscle (cardiomyopathy, myocarditis)
  • Coronary artery disease
  • Heart attack
  • Heart failure
  • Diseases of the impulse conduction system
  • Congenital heart rhythm disorders (e.g. Long QT-Syndrome, WPW, Brugada)
  • Hyperthyroidism
  • Anemia

Several other conditions can cause tachycardia.

These include:

  • Fever
  • Anxiety
  • Drinking a lot of alcohol
  • Alcohol withdrawal
  • Intake of a lot of caffeine
  • High or low blood pressure
  • Electrolyte imbalance
  • Side effects of medication
  • Smoking
  • Other toxins
  • Drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine



What Are the Symptoms of Tachycardia?

The most obvious symptom of tachycardia is a very fast heartbeat. But other symptoms might go along with tachycardia that you should watch out for:

  • The heart might feel like it is beating too hard
  • It might feel like the heart is skipping beats or has too many.
  • Chest pain
  • Fainting (syncope)
  • Dizziness
  • A really fast pulse
  • Trouble breathing

Should you feel any or all of these symptoms you might want to see your doctor, especially if they occur for a longer time.

Physician taking pulse measurements by hand

How Is Tachycardia Diagnosed?

To diagnose whether or not your heart is beating too fast, the physician will most likely measure your pulse and use an electrocardiogram (ECG) to graph your heart´s electric activity. Sometimes, the ECG alone points to the underlying cause of tachycardia.

Diagnosing why you have tachycardia is very important for effective long-term therapy. In addition to the ECG, the physician might examine you further. These examinations might include blood tests, X-rays, ultrasound, and/or a specific examination of the blood vessel system. If your tachycardia is not detectable all of the time, the physician might want you to take a long-term ECG. In this case, you will be asked to wear a portable ECG that stays on for about 24hrs.

Alternatively, the physician may observe your heart’s electric activity over a long period of time with a heart monitor. Heart monitors are insertable and may stay inside your body for years.


How Is Tachycardia Treated?

There are various ways to treat tachycardia. Preventing the heart from beating too fast is the common goal of all treatments.

The first step in controlling your heartbeat and rhythm will most likely be drugs like beta-blockers. Should those not prove effective enough, your physician might recommend getting a pacemaker or ICD.


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