Is it time to see a heart rhythm specialist?
Ventricular tachycardia (ven-TRI-kyuh-lar tack-uh-CARD-ee-uh) is an arrhythmia (uh-RITH-mee-uh), which means an abnormal heartbeat. Ventricular tachycardia (also called V-tach) makes part of the heart beat the wrong way.
Your heart is made of four separate areas (chambers) that squeeze and release in a specific way to keep your blood moving through your body. The two upper chambers are called the atria (AY-tree-uh) and the lower chambers are called ventricles (VEN-tri-kulls). V-tach makes the lower chambers of the heart beat faster than normal. On average, a healthy heart beats about 60 to 100 times a minute. In a V-tach episode, the heart beats over 100 times a minute.
This fast heartbeat stops the heart chambers from properly filling with blood. As a result, the heart may not be able to pump enough blood to the body. If this happens, you may feel short of breath or lightheaded, or you may pass out.
V-tach episodes may be brief and last only a couple of seconds without causing harm. But episodes lasting more than a few seconds (sustained V-tach) can be life-threatening. Sometimes V-tach can cause the heart to stop (sudden cardiac arrest).
Your heart is a pump made of muscle tissue. The heart needs a source of energy and oxygen to function, like all muscles. The heart’s squeezing and releasing action is regulated by an electrical system that makes all the chambers of the heart work together. If these electrical signals are off or fire at the wrong time, it leads to problems such as V-tach.
Electrical signals are passed to and from small mounds of special tissue in the heart called nodes. There are two: the sinus and the atrioventricular node (ay-tree-oh-ven-TRI-kyuh-lar nohd), or the AV node. A healthy heart at rest beats about 60 to 100 times per minute as electrical signals move through the chambers of the heart.
The electrical signals in your heart are carefully timed so your heart can deliver oxygen to your body. Each squeeze, or contraction, of the ventricles represents one heartbeat. The atria contract before the ventricles to move blood into the ventricles, and then the ventricles contract.
If any part of this system doesn’t work, then the heart can’t work like it should. This results in shortness of breath, dizziness and many other problems such as ventricular tachycardia. V-tach happens when the lower two chambers of the heart beat too fast – sometimes up to 170 beats per minute.
A healthy heart at rest beats about 60 to 100 times a minute. V-tach can make the heart beat very fast – close to 170 beats a minute. A heart rate of 170 can cause you to feel lightheaded or even cause you to pass out. Sometimes a V-tach episode is short and no harm is done. If an episode of V-tach continues for more than 30 seconds (called sustained V-tach), you can go into sudden cardiac arrest. This is when the heart stops beating, then breathing stops. Survival is possible with immediate medical attention.
V-tach can lead to ventricular fibrillation (fi-bruh-LAY-shun), which is when the lower chambers of the heart flutter instead of fully squeezing and pumping blood. This can also lead to cardiac arrest. Survival is possible if someone performs cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) or uses a defibrillator (de-FI-bruh-lay-tor), which sends an electrical signal to restart the heart.
Left untreated, V-tach can lead to frequent fainting, heart failure or cardiac arrest. Patients with V-tach are usually at a higher risk of heart conditions, which can be fatal. Irregular heart rhythms like V-tach or ventricular fibrillation – if left untreated – can have a high risk of death of about 20% within two years.
There are factors that affect your life expectancy if you have V-tach, including:
A family history of tachycardia or other heart rhythm disorders makes a person more likely to develop V-tach.
Short episodes of V-tach are usually harmless, but prolonged or repeated episodes can mean something more serious. Typical V-tach symptoms include:
V-tach is when the electrical signals in your heart are not working as they should. V-tach causes include:
Sometimes, there is no known cause for V-tach. This is called idiopathic (id-ee-oh-PATH-ick) V-tach. That means there is no obvious reason for the irregular heartbeat – you haven’t had any of the conditions listed above, there is no scarring, etc.
Heart failure develops when the heart, for some reason, isn’t pumping enough blood or isn’t pumping fast enough to keep up with the body’s needs. It doesn’t mean the heart stops, like cardiac arrest. The heart isn’t able to do its job well enough. A symptom of heart failure is sometimes V-tach. V-tach can lead to sudden cardiac arrest.
If you notice your heart is missing a beat or beating too quickly when you’re not active, if you have symptoms such as fainting, dizziness or lightheadedness, or you have a family history of heart arrhythmias, talk to your doctor. There are medications and procedures that can help, but earlier diagnosis is better.
Your doctor may try medications to treat V-tach. These medications are called anti-arrhythmics. They can be given in a pill form or by a needle in your arm that slowly drips the medicine into your body. Other medicines can also be used, alone or with anti-arrythmics. Calcium channel blockers and beta blockers are two commonly used drugs for V-tach. These drugs slow the heart rate and reduce blood pressure.
V-tach can be treated with medication, but there are some reasons why a ventricular catheter ablation might be right for you. You will talk to an electrophysiologist (eh-LEK-troh-fi-zee-AHLL-oh-just), who has an expertise in understanding your heart’s electrical signals. Before recommending ablation, the doctor will check:
Your physician may also take into consideration your age.
If you have a device that sends electrical signals to your heart to get it to beat correctly, called an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator, ablation can reduce the number of times this device needs to send a signal to your heart to get it to beat correctly.
The ablation procedure typically has a higher success rate than medication alone, which means there is less risk of symptoms returning. There is a low risk of complications with this procedure, as well as a quick recovery time.
Treatment for V-tach involves managing any diseases that causes the condition, as well as the symptoms of V-tach. Common treatments for V-tach include:
If you or a loved one has recurring episodes of V-tach, and you have not seen a health care provider, make an appointment soon.
Norton Heart & Vascular Institute offers patient resources to support you and your family, including free classes for people of all ages who are seeking to improve cardiovascular health or living with a heart condition.
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Connecting Hearts Support Group
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