If you watch medical dramas, you may have heard TV doctors say someone is in ‘V-tach.” That is the simple and quick way of saying “ventricular tachycardia.”
And that’s what it is in a nutshell -- an abnormally rapid heartbeat.
How Your Heart Should Beat
Your heart is a muscular pump made up of four chambers. The two upper ones are called the atria. The two lower ones are called the ventricles. They work together to pump oxygen and nutrient-rich blood throughout your body. Every day, a healthy heart beats about 100,000 times.
Your heartbeat is controlled by electrical signals. These signals follow a specific pattern, beginning in the sinoatrial, or SA, node, which is in your heart’s upper chamber, or atrium.
This signal causes your atria to contract. It then moves down to another part of your heart called the atrioventricular, or AV, node. This tells your ventricles to contract.
What Goes Wrong
But with this condition, the electrical signals in your ventricles fire off the wrong way. The pulses coming from the SA node, often referred to as the heart’s natural pacemaker, are also affected.
Most normal heart rates are in the range of 60 to 100 beats a minute. Ventricular tachycardia can result in rates as high as 170 beats a minute or even more.
Your heart’s upper chambers don’t have time to refill and then send that blood to the ventricles. That means your blood is not getting pumped properly throughout your body.
In some instances, this condition can lead to what’s called ventricular fibrillation, very rapid and erratic heartbeats of 300 or more a minute. This is life-threatening, and you would need emergency treatment.
What Are the Symptoms?
You may not have any, especially if your heart beats extra fast for only a few seconds. But most episodes last longer, and you might then feel lightheaded or dizzy.
Other common symptoms are:
In some cases, it can cause fainting and unconsciousness.
Am I Likely to Get This?
It usually shows up in people with other types of heart conditions, such as coronary artery disease, which can interfere with blood flow.
If you have a condition called cardiomyopathy, which causes the heart muscle to become enlarged, thick, or rigid, you have a greater chance of ventricular tachycardia. Heart attacks and heart surgery can also increase your chances.
The following are rare but can cause this condition:
How Is It Diagnosed?
Your doctor will review your medical history and symptoms, as well as results of heart-related tests.
The first one you probably would get is called an electrocardiogram (you may hear it called an ECG or EKG). This test records your heart’s electrical activity.
Your doctor may also want you to get what’s called electrophysiology testing, which pinpoints problem areas in your heart.
What Are My Treatment Options?
You may not need to do anything if your symptoms are mild and happen rarely. But if that’s not the case, the type and length of treatments you get will depend on what’s causing the problem.
If you have what your doctor might call “an underlying condition,” such as an electrolyte imbalance, he will treat that first to see whether your heart rate becomes normal.
Often, correcting that underlying condition can make the rapid heart rate better. If a medication or caffeine is causing your condition, stopping those might fix the problem as well.
Otherwise, your doctor may choose from several options.
One is to place a small device, called an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator, or ICD, under the skin right below your collarbone. An ICD helps your heart beat normally. It can prevent the ventricular tachycardia from leading to a life-threatening problem. You doctor might go with this option if your condition cannot be fixed or managed.
Another option is called cardiac ablation. In this procedure, doctors use heat to destroy abnormal heart tissue. This method treats the ventricular tachycardia and can cure it.
In some cases, you might get medications to slow your heartbeat.
When Should I See My Doctor?
You should see him as soon as possible if you’ve felt lightheaded or dizzy, had rapid heartbeats, or you’ve fainted.
Call 911 if you have chest pain and a hard time breathing, along with a rapid pulse.
Other Types of Disorders
While ventricular tachycardia starts in the lower chambers, the upper part of the heart might also be the source of the problem.
Supraventricular tachycardia, or SVT, starts in those upper chambers, called the atria.
SVT has several forms and is the most common type of rapid-heartbeat problem in children, as well as adults who drink too much coffee or alcohol, smoke heavily, are under stress, are not sleeping well, or are not getting enough fluids.
This condition isn’t as urgent as ventricular tachycardia, but you should still see a doctor.