Fast Heartbeat in the Upper Heart

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In most healthy people, a normal heart rate is 60 to 100 beats per minute. A heart rate faster than 100 beats a minute is called tachycardia.

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To help you understand tachycardia, it helps to understand your heart's electrical system.The heart’s pumping action is driven by electrical stimulation within the heart muscle. The heart’s electrical system allows it to beat in an organized pattern. Electrical signals in your heart can become blocked or irregular, causing a disruption in your heart’s normal rhythm. When your heart beats out of rhythm, it may not deliver enough blood to your body.

Sometimes a rate above 100 beats is normal. For example, when you are exercising, your body needs more oxygen and so your heart rate rises to meet this demand. Other times, a fast heartbeat greater than 100 beats a minute is not normal and is the result of a problem with the heart or irregular electrical signals in the heart. If you have a fast heart rate, it could be caused by a type of tachycardia.

There are many types of tachycardias. They are organized by where they originate:

  • In the atria (the upper chambers of the heart)
  • In the ventricles (the lower chambers of the heart)

Tachycardias that originate in the atria—or the upper heart—are:

Atrial Fibrillation

This is the most common arrhythmia and mostly affects older people. Atrial fibrillation, also called AF or A Fib, is a very fast, irregular heartbeat that occurs when the upper chambers of the heart beat so fast that they only can quiver. During AF, the upper chambers beat between 350 and 600 times per minute. (Normal heart rhythm is between 60 and 100 beats per minute.) Due to the erratic rhythm in the upper chambers, the rhythm of the lower chambers of the heart can also become very irregular.

Atrial fibrillation can be dangerous as over time it can cause more serious conditions such as stroke.

What Are the Symptoms?

Possible symptoms associated with atrial fibrillation include:

  • Palpitations, rapid thumping or a pounding sensation in your chest
  • Chest discomfort
  • Fatigue or light-headedness
  • Fainting
  • Shortness of breath
  • Feelings of weakness

What Are the Causes?

Possible causes of atrial fibrillation include:

  • Coronary artery disease
  • Heart attack
  • Diabetes
  • High cholesterol
  • High blood pressure
  • Cigarette smoking
  • Drug or alcohol abuse
  • Excess weight
  • High fat diet
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Stress
  • Certain medications (over-the-counter and prescriptions, including decongestants and diet and herbal supplements)
  • Heart surgery (may also be a non-controllable risk factor)
  • Family history of heart disease
  • Congenital heart disorders (heart problems present at birth, usually involving the heart's chambers or valves)
  • Advancing age
  • Gender (males are more susceptible)

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Animation

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  • Fast Heartbeat Arrhythmias: Atrial Fibrillation

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Atrial Flutter

Atrial flutter is similar to atrial fibrillation. Like atrial fibrillation, it originates in the upper chambers of the heart. During atrial flutter, the heart beats anywhere from 240 to 320 times per minute. Unlike atrial fibrillation, it produces a more organized, regular rhythm.

In atrial flutter, even though the upper chambers are beating rapidly, only one-half to one-third of the electrical impulses reach the heart’s lower chambers. This is because a cluster of cells located in the center of the heart between the upper and lower chambers called the atrioventricular node (or AV node) slows the electrical signal before it enters the lower chambers. This prevents the arrhythmia from becoming life-threatening, and keeps the wrist pulse rate at only 100 to 150 beats per minute.

Atrial flutter can occur constantly or in episodes where the attacks last hours or days and are followed by a period of normal heart rhythm.

What Are the Symptoms?

The following symptoms are associated with atrial flutter:

  • Palpitations, which are sensations of a racing, uncomfortable, irregular heartbeat or a flopping in your chest
  • Decreased blood pressure
  • Weakness
  • Light-headedness
  • Confusion
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain

What Are the Causes?

Possible causes of atrial flutter include:

  • Heart attack
  • Abnormal heart valves
  • Congenital heart defects
  • High blood pressure
  • An overactive thyroid or other metabolic imbalance
  • Medications, caffeine, tobacco or alcohol
  • Sick sinus syndrome
  • Emphysema or other lung conditions
  • Previous heart surgery
  • Viral infections
  • Stress due to pneumonia, surgery or other illnesses
  • Sleep apnea

Animation

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  • Fast Heartbeat Arrhythmias: Atrial Flutter

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Supraventricular Tachycardia

Supraventricular tachycardia, also called SVT, is a series of fast heartbeats that originate in the atria or upper chambers of the heart. It begins when the electrical signal circles repeatedly through an extra pathway. SVT can cause a burst of rapid heartbeats—250 times per minute or faster—that begins and ends suddenly. The racing heart can cause an uncomfortable sensation in the chest and trigger feelings of anxiety. This type of arrhythmia is more common in young people but also can occur as people age.

What Are the Symptoms?

These symptoms are associated with SVT:

  • Palpitations, rapid thumping or a pounding sensation in your chest
  • Fatigue or light-headedness
  • Fainting
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain

What Are the Causes?

Possible causes of SVT include:

  • Coronary artery disease
  • Heart attack
  • Diabetes
  • High cholesterol
  • High blood pressure
  • Cigarette smoking
  • Drug or alcohol abuse
  • Excess weight
  • High fat diet
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Stress
  • Certain medications (over-the-counter and prescriptions, including decongestants and diet and herbal supplements)
  • Heart surgery
  • Family history of heart disease
  • Congenital heart disorders (heart problems present at birth, usually involving the heart's chambers or valves)
  • Advancing age
  • Gender (males are more susceptible)

Animation

    Recommended animation:
  • Fast Heartbeat Arrhythmias: Supraventricular Tachycardia Animation

View Understanding Arrhythmias and Treatment Options Animations 

Last Reviewed: March 11, 2010 900245