Tachycardia is an abnormally rapid beating of the heart, defined as a resting heart rate of over 100 beats per minute.
It can have harmful effects in two ways. First, when the heart beats too rapidly, it performs inefficiently (since there is not enough time for the ventricles to fill completely), causing blood flow and blood pressure to diminish. Second, it increases the work of the heart, causing it to require more oxygen while also reducing the blood flow to the cardiac muscle tissue, increasing the risk of ischemia or infarction.
Tachycardia is a general symptomatic term that does not describe the cause of the rapid rate. Common causes are autonomic nervous system or endocrine system activity, hemodynamic responses, and various forms of cardiac arrhythmia.
Autonomic and endocrine causes
An increase in sympathetic nervous system stimulation causes the heart rate to increase, both by the direct action of sympathetic nerve fibers on the heart, and by causing the endocrine system to release hormones such as epinephrine (adrenaline) which have a similar effect. Increased sympathetic stimulation is usually due to physical or psychological stress (the so-called "fight or flight" response), but can also be induced by stimulants such as caffeine.
Endocrine disorders such as pheochromocytoma can cause epinephrine release and tachycardia independent of the nervous system.
The body contains several feedback mechanisms to maintain adequate blood flow and blood pressure. If blood pressure decreases, the heart beats faster in an attempt to raise it.
This can happen in response to a decrease in blood volume (through dehydration or bleeding), or an unexpected change in blood flow. The most common cause of the latter is orthostatic hypotension (also called postural hypotension), a sudden drop of blood pressure that occurs with a change in body position (e.g., going from lying down to standing up). When tachycardia occurs for this reason, it is called postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS).
An electrocardiogram tracing can distinguish several different forms of rapid abnormal heartbeat:
If the heart's electrical system is functioning normally, except that the rate is over 100 beats per minute, it is called sinus tachycardia. This is caused by any of the factors mentioned above, rather than a malfunction of the heart itself.
Supraventricular tachycardia (SVT) occurs when an abnormal electrical impulse originates above the ventricles, but instead of causing a single beat and a pause, it travels in circles and causes many rapid beats. Ventricular tachycardia (VT or "V-tach") is a similar phenomenon occurring within the tissue of the ventricles, causing an extremely rapid rate with poor pumping action. Both of these rhythms normally last for only a few seconds (paroxysmal tachycardia), but if VT persists it is extremely dangerous, often leading to ventricular fibrillation.
Arrhythmias can be treated using drugs, intervention or implantable devices. See also: Bradycardia
Last updated: 02-08-2005 19:17:25
Last updated: 05-03-2005 17:50:55