Ventricular tachycardia is a rapid heart rate. It begins in your heart’s lower chambers, or ventricles. Experts usually define ventricular tachycardia as three or more heartbeats in a row, at a rate of more than 120 beats a minute. If ventricular tachycardia lasts for more than a few seconds at a time, it can become life-threatening.
Fast, regular beating of your ventricles describes episodes of ventricular tachycardia. Sometimes, it lasts for only a few seconds. Longer episodes are dangerous. The rapid heartbeat does not allow enough time for your heart to fill with blood before it contracts again. This can impair blood flow to the rest of your body.
Other physical symptoms include:
Who’s at risk
Ventricular tachycardia is usually associated with other heart problems. These include abnormal heart valves; cardiomyopathy, a weakness of your heart muscle; and coronary artery disease. This is a condition that occurs when your arteries become clogged with fatty deposits.
Sarcoidosis is an autoimmune disease that can cause inflammation of your skin and organs. It can also cause ventricular tachycardia. Certain medications that interfere with the movement of electrical signals through your heart might also contribute to the condition, as can excessive caffeine and alcohol.
To diagnose this condition, your doctor may order an electrocardiogram. This test measures your heartbeat’s rate and rhythm, and the electrical signals in your heart. In some cases, your doctor may want to observe your heart’s activity during a 24-hour period. He or she will give you a Holter monitor to wear during your daily activities.
If you do not have underlying heart disease, are not experiencing bothersome symptoms, and your episodes of ventricular tachycardia last 30 seconds or less, you may not need medication. If you do have symptoms, along with short episodes of ventricular tachycardia, your doctor might prescribe beta blockers. These are drugs that help to slow down your heartbeat.
Longer episodes of ventricular tachycardia can be dangerous. If you have an episode of rapid heartbeat that is persistent, or causes you to pass out, your doctor may give you an anti-arrhythmic drug intravenously to stop the episode quickly. To prevent future problems, he or she may recommend an implantable cardioverter defibrillator. This is a device that uses electrical pulses to prevent and treat abnormal heart rhythms. Your doctor will place this device inside your chest or abdomen.
If you have ventricular tachycardia, you are at risk of developing ventricular fibrillation. This is a very dangerous condition that makes your heart’s ventricles quiver, rather than pump blood throughout your body. Ventricular fibrillation requires immediate electric shock treatment. It can cause cardiac arrest and death within minutes.
You can reduce your risk for future episodes of ventricular tachycardia by keeping your heart healthy through smart lifestyle choices. Follow a diet low in sodium and fat and rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Physical activity is also important. Work with your medical team to develop an exercise program that is safe for you. Always check with your doctor before beginning an exercise plan, especially if you’ve had heart problems.
When to call the doctor
Serious symptoms associated with ventricular tachycardia (and other arrhythmias) include lightheadedness, dizziness, fainting, chest pain, and rapid heartbeat. If you have any of these signs, seek immediate medical help.
How to manage or live with the condition
If your doctor diagnoses ventricular tachycardia, follow his or her treatment plan closely. Take all medications as prescribed, and tell your doctor about any medications you may be taking for other conditions. Discuss your alcohol, tobacco, or caffeine use with your medical team. These substances can contribute to an irregular heartbeat.
- Fraser, Marianne, MSN, RN
- Jones, Niya, MD, MPH