CausesBy Mayo Clinic staff
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Tachycardia is caused by something that disrupts the normal electrical impulses that control the rhythm of your heart's pumping action. Many things can cause or contribute to problems with the heart's electrical system. These factors include:
- Damage to heart tissues from heart disease
- Abnormal electrical pathways in the heart present at birth (congenital)
- Disease or congenital abnormality of the heart
- High blood pressure
- Drinking too much alcohol
- Drinking too many caffeinated beverages
- A side effect of medications
- Abuse of recreational drugs, such as cocaine
- Imbalance of electrolytes, mineral-related substances necessary for conducting electrical impulses
- Overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism)
In some cases, the exact cause of tachycardia can't be determined.
Electrical circuitry of the heart
Your heart is made up of four chambers — two upper chambers (atria) and two lower chambers (ventricles). The rhythm of your heart is normally controlled by a natural pacemaker — the sinus node — located in the right atrium. The sinus node produces electrical impulses that normally start each heartbeat.
From the sinus node, electrical impulses travel across the atria, causing the atria muscles to contract and pump blood into the ventricles. The electrical impulses then arrive at a cluster of cells called the atrioventricular node (AV node) — usually the only pathway for signals to travel from the atria to the ventricles.
The AV node slows down the electrical signal before sending it to the ventricles. This slight delay allows the ventricles to fill with blood. When electrical impulses reach the muscles of the ventricles, they contract, causing them to pump blood either to the lungs or to the rest of the body.
Types of tachycardias
Tachycardia occurs when a problem in electrical signals produces a heartbeat that is faster than normal. Common types of tachycardia include the following:
Atrial fibrillation is a rapid heart rate caused by chaotic electrical impulses in the atria. These signals result in rapid, uncoordinated, weak contractions of the atria. The chaotic electrical signals bombard the AV node, usually resulting in an irregular, rapid rhythm of the ventricles. Atrial fibrillation may be temporary, but some episodes won't end unless treated.
Most people with atrial fibrillation have some structural abnormalities of the heart related to such conditions as heart disease or high blood pressure. Other factors that may contribute to atrial fibrillation include a heart valve disorder, hyperthyroidism or heavy alcohol use.
Atrial flutter is a very fast, but regular rate of the atria caused by irregular circuitry within the atria. The fast rate results in weak contractions of the atria. The rapid signals entering the AV node cause a rapid and sometimes irregular ventricular rate. Episodes of atrial flutter may get better on their own, or the condition may persist unless treated.
People who experience atrial flutter often experience atrial fibrillation at other times.
Supraventricular tachycardias (SVTs), which originate somewhere above the ventricles, are caused by abnormal circuitry in the heart, usually present at birth, that creates a loop of overlapping signals.
In one form of SVT, an abnormality in the AV node may "split" an electrical signal into two, sending one signal to the ventricles and another back to the atria. Another common abnormality is the presence of an extra electrical pathway from the atria to the ventricles that bypasses the AV node. This may result in a signal going down one pathway and up the other. Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome is one disorder featuring an extra pathway.
- Ventricular tachycardia is a rapid rate that originates with abnormal electrical signals in the ventricles. The rapid beat doesn't allow the ventricles to fill and contract efficiently to pump enough blood to the body. Ventricular tachycardia is often a life-threatening medical emergency.
Ventricular fibrillation occurs when rapid, chaotic electrical impulses cause the ventricles to quiver ineffectively instead of pumping necessary blood to the body. This serious problem is fatal if the heart isn't restored to a normal rhythm within minutes.
Most people who experience ventricular fibrillation have an underlying heart disease or have experienced serious trauma, such as being struck by lightning.
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