The normal pulse rate of the average adult, when at rest, is about 60-100 heartbeats per minute. There are exceptions such as professional athletes, whose hearts are more efficient and are known to beat at around the 40-60 range, but for most people the 60-100 span is the norm.
Under certain circumstances, however, a higher pulse rate can arise. If your pulse exceeds 100 beats per minute for a prolonged length of time, or even if it hovers around the high end of the scale for too long, you can be diagnosed with tachycardia, or a rapid heart rate.
It is important to distinguish between tachycardia and a rapid pulse. The terms refer to the same thing but usually have different connotations. Generally speaking, “tachycardia” refers to a chronically high heart rate while “high pulse rate” or “rapid pulse” implies a more short-term affair. Â
Causes of High Pulse Rate and Tachycardia
A high pulse rate is usually tied to a temporary situation that will either go away on its own or can be treated directly. The most common cause is emotional or physical stress. Sudden fear, anxiety, or nervousness can easily cause a rapid pulse. Any increased physical demand on the heart, such as sprinting or heavy lifting will also cause your pulse rate to rise.
Consuming a stimulant, such as caffeine, or certain medications, can lead to a temporary rise in heart rate. Certain medical conditions can lead to a high pulse rate. Having a fever, electrolyte imbalances, or dehydration can also make the heart pump faster in response.
Tachycardia can result from anemia, substance abuse (tobacco, cocaine, etc.), and hypertension. It is also unsurprisingly tied to heart disease. Ailments such as coronary heart disease or pericarditis (inflammation of the pericardium), but also lung conditions like emphysema, will agitate the heart and make it pump more.
An overactive thyroid gland can interfere with the signals the heart receives and amplify its rate as well. Structural changes to the heart, such as any damage from heart disease or heart attacks, or congenital defects in electrical pathways or structure, can also lead to tachycardia.
Symptoms of a High Pulse Rate or Tachycardia
Your heart works remarkably quickly but even it needs time to fill with blood between pumps. If you have ever used an air push-pump, you can see this principle at workâit’s easier to fill up a tire or balloon by fully pushing down and pulling up the plunger rather than doing so rapidly. In other words, the symptoms of tachycardia and a high pulse rate are largely connected to how the condition leads the body to not get as oxygenated as it would like. The primary symptoms will be:
- Chest pain
- Rapid pulse
- Shortness of breath
- Palpitations, which are a racing/irregular feeling of your heartbeat
- Fainting (“syncope”)
It is important to add that these symptoms do not always appearâsome people can have tachycardia and not realize anything is wrong until a doctor discovers the condition on an exam. Other times, the underlying trigger of the high pulse rate is short-lived enough that the matter will resolve before you can really notice the effects.
In addition to the above symptoms, tachycardia is a distinct risk factor for complications such as a heart attack, stroke, blood clot, or heart failure. Having a chronically high heart rate also makes a person more prone to fainting spells.
Treating High Pulse Rate and Tachycardia
Treatment for a rapid heart rate will vary depending on individual responsiveness and what the underlying cause is. Your doctor will be better able to advise you on which treatment options are applicable to your case.
Removal of the Stimulant
As mentioned, emotional and physical stressors can raise your heart rate, as can consuming certain substances. When you are no longer in a frightening, anxious, or physically exerting situation, or when the medicine/caffeine/cocaine/tobacco/alcohol/etc. leaves your system, your heart rate will return to normal. Obviously, this can be easier said than done depending on the stimulus in question and may require additional steps. If your high pulse rate is from a prescribed medication, it is important that you do not stop taking it without your doctor’s approval.
These are techniques that target the vagus nerve, which helps govern your heartbeat. Forcing a cough, bearing down (like when constipated), or putting an ice pack on your face can stimulate the nerve and help get the heart rate under control.
There are anti-arrhythmic medications that can be administered via injection at a hospital in order to try and restore a normal heart rate. There are also prescription versions that can be given in order to try and manage a rapid heart rate that isn’t responding to vagal maneuvers or rest. Some medications, such as calcium-channel blockers, can be taken regularly to reduce your heart rate depending on what the cause is.
A defibrillator delivers a targeted electric shock to the heart in order to “jolt” it out of an abnormal rhythm. Defibrillators are used primarily in emergency situations or as a last resort. A defibrillator may be implanted in your chest if you are at a high risk for suffering a life-threatening tachycardia.
Catheter ablation is a procedure that can be used to treat an extra electrical pathway, one of the congenital causes of tachycardia. A catheter is inserted into the veins and guided through the blood vessels to the heart, where electrodes are used to damage the extra path and stop its signaling. In some cases, open-heart surgery will be needed to target the pathway in question.
This is not an actual treatment for a high pulse rate or tachycardia, but it can come up. Since tachycardia puts you at higher risk for blood clots, blood-thinning medication may be prescribed to reduce the likelihood of one developing.
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