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Tachycardia (Fast Heart Rate)

Tachycardia is a type of arrhythmia that causes your heart to beat too fast. It raises the risk of blood clots, stroke and other problems. At the Washington University and Barnes-Jewish Heart & Vascular Center, we assess the cause of your symptoms. Our team works with you to find a solution to relieve symptoms and protect your health. 

Our specialists treat many people with tachycardia. That high patient volume speaks to the trust patients and other physicians have in our expertise. It also means we have a depth of experience that helps our doctors provide an accurate diagnosis and successful treatment.

What Is Tachycardia?

Tachycardia is a heart rate over 100 beats per minute when you are at rest. A fault in your heart’s electrical system causes tachycardia, which can begin in any of your heart’s chambers. This fast heart rate raises your risk of having a stroke. It also may cause cardiac arrest or sudden cardiac death.

Types of tachycardia

Ventricular tachycardia or “V-tach” starts in the heart's bottom chambers, known as the ventricles. We often detect V-tach in patients whose hearts have developed scar tissue, which can occur after a heart attack.

V-tach can lead to ventricular fibrillation, sometimes called VFib. In ventricular fibrillation, the heart’s lower chambers quiver, similar to how atrial fibrillation affects the upper chambers. If the heart cannot pump blood, VFib can cause cardiac arrest.

Supraventricular tachycardia (SVT) begins above the ventricles. The symptoms are similar to V-tach, but SVT develops in the atria or the atrioventricular (AV) node. The AV node is an electrical gatekeeper between the atrium and ventricle that helps to time the way blood flows into the ventricles.

Our experts work quickly to get you the treatment you need. Learn more about our critical care services.

Symptoms of Tachycardia

You may not experience any symptoms of tachycardia. Sometimes, we diagnose the problem during an exam for a different condition. If you do notice symptoms, they may resemble those of other arrhythmias and heart rhythm disorders. It is important to see a doctor for an expert diagnosis and to begin treatment.

Signs of tachycardia can include:

  • chest pain
  • dizziness
  • fainting
  • heart palpitations
  • lightheadedness
  • rapid heartbeat
  • shortness of breath

Diagnosing Tachycardia

First, we ask about your symptoms and medical history. You’ll also have a thorough physical examination. Because tachycardia doesn’t happen on demand, you may have one or more diagnostic tests to detect V-tach or VFib when you’re away from our offices. These tests may include:

  • Portable monitor: A Holter monitor or event recorder allows us to collect data about your heart rhythms for 24 to 48 hours. We place electrodes on your chest and attach them to a small, portable device. You wear the monitor around your neck or in your pocket.
  • Insertable cardiac monitor (ICM): We insert a loop recorder, a small, unobtrusive monitoring device, below the skin in your chest. The monitor continuously tracks your heart’s electrical activity for up to three years. Your doctor can view the reports to pinpoint any atypical activity. The ICM is a newer, smaller version of the implantable loop recorder used in the past.
  • Electrophysiology study: In a minimally invasive procedure, we insert catheters (long, thin tubes) through blood vessels to your heart. We can map the precise location of heart rhythm abnormalities to recommend the best therapy. Learn more about cardiac electrophysiology.

Tachycardia Treatments

The goal of tachycardia treatment is to control and regulate your heartbeat. To do so, we may also need to manage underlying heart conditions that may be causing the problem.

The Heart & Vascular Center offers expertise in all current treatments for tachycardia, including:

  • Medication: Certain medications can prevent ventricular tachycardia. It’s important to receive expert medication management for V-tach because some arrhythmia medications can worsen it. We seek out the right medication to improve your condition.
  • Cardioversion: We can often stop ventricular tachycardia with a short electrical shock to the heart. The controlled shock restores normal rhythm.
  • Catheter ablation: We use catheters to deliver energy to the heart, creating safe and effective scars that block the signals that cause the fast heart rate. Our team has completed thousands of ablation procedures, including more than 1,500 ablation treatments for supraventricular tachycardia, a type of V-tach. Ablation relieves arrhythmia in up to 99 percent of patients.
  • Cox-Maze procedure: Doctors at Barnes-Jewish Hospital developed and refined this procedure. It is the gold standard of care for many arrhythmias. A surgeon applies ablations to the heart, making tiny areas of scar tissue that interrupt the heart’s faulty electrical signals. The ablations permanently stop the abnormal rhythms.
  • Implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (ICD): We implant this device, which is about the size of a pocket watch, under the skin in your chest. When the ICD detects an abnormal electrical signal, it can correct the rhythm within seconds. We are an expert center for ICD implantation.
  • Stroke-reducing procedures and medications: Part of your treatment may include procedures or medication to reduce your risk of stroke. In a minimally invasive procedure, surgeons can close off the left atrial appendage (LAA) to reduce the chance of stroke-causing blood clots.

Contact Us

To make an appointment with a Washington University arrhythmia specialist at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis, call 314-747-1518.