A healthy heart usually beats around 60 to 100 times per minute, but it’s normal for your heart rate to increase when you’re stressed or while you’re exercising. On the other hand, when your heart beats faster than normal for no apparent reason—when you’re at rest or even while you’re sleeping—it may be an episode of supraventricular tachycardia (SVT).
SVT is the broad term that includes arrhythmias, or abnormal heart rhythms, that result from an electrical glitch in the upper chambers of the heart, including atrial flutter. This abnormal electrical signal interferes with your heart’s natural pacemaker, resulting in a jump in heart rate.
A spell of SVT may be sudden and fleeting and some people who develop this abnormally fast heartbeat may not develop any warning signs. For others, however, SVT may occur frequently and persist. They may also develop some uncomfortable symptoms, including:
- Palpitations or a racing heart
- Fluttering in the chest
- Chest pain or pressure
- A pounding sensation in the neck
- Shortness of breath
- Feeling faint or passing out
Most people with SVT, particularly those with rare episodes, do not require medication or procedures to manage the condition. In some cases, just making certain lifestyle adjustments can help ensure that your heart beats with a steady rhythm.
Lifestyle adjustments that could help
Unlike certain abnormal heart rhythms, such as ventricular fibrillation, that originate in the heart’s lower chambers, SVT usually isn’t dangerous. Still, coping with unexpected episodes can be frustrating or challenging for some people. In these cases, making some lifestyle changes could help prevent these occurrences.
SVT can occur suddenly and without warning, but there are a variety of triggers that can bring on this abnormally fast heart rhythm. Taking certain medications, including some asthma drugs or over-the-counter cold and allergy remedies, can lead to SVT. Heavy drinking, smoking, excessive caffeine intake and using certain illegal drugs and herbal supplements are other known SVT triggers.
Minimize your risk by avoiding alcohol or drinking only in moderation—no more than one drink per day for women or two for men. If you smoke, talk to your doctor about safe and effective ways to quit. It’s also important to tell your doctor about all the supplements and medications that you are taking; even those labeled as “all natural” could have unwanted side effects or interactions.
Eat a heart-healthy diet
The Mediterranean-style diet—which is rich in fruits and vegetables and focuses on lean protein, whole grains and moderate amounts of unsaturated fats—has been shown to have a protective effect on the heart.
Like the Mediterranean diet, the DASH diet emphasizes fruits and vegetables, while limiting sodium, saturated fat and sugar. Talk with your doctor or a registered dietitian about which heart-healthy eating plan is right for you.
Get the right amount of exercise
Federal health officials recommend that most adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity each week, and exercising regularly is a crucial habit when it comes to the prevention of heart disease.
But if you’re experiencing symptoms of SVT, it’s important to talk to your healthcare provider (HCP) about what level and types of physical activity are appropriate for you. For some people, physical activity could trigger SVT. Your HCP may want to conduct an exercise stress test to assess how your heart responds to exercise before greenlighting an exercise program.
Maintain a healthy weight
People with heart disease and those with uncontrolled diabetes are at higher risk for an arrhythmia. Maintaining a healthy weight can help prevent both of these conditions and reduce the risk for SVT. Losing just 5 to 10 percent of excess weight can improve your heart health and will have a positive effect on blood cholesterol levels, blood pressure and other known heart risks.
Get enough sleep
Physical exhaustion or fatigue increases the risk for SVT. Getting good-quality sleep every night is important for heart health. Adults should aim for seven to nine hours each night—and establishing good sleep hygiene can help you get there. This may include setting and sticking to regular sleep and wake times, using the bedroom only for sleep and sex and avoiding caffeine and alcohol as bedtime approaches.
Stress is a known SVT trigger. And while it may be impossible to eliminate stress entirely, you can change how you cope with it and take steps to reduce your anxiety. Take the edge off by finding relaxation techniques or physical activities that can help alleviate stress. Make sure you find options that are not only enjoyable but that also fit into your lifestyle so you can engage in them routinely. Consider trying yoga, deep breathing exercises or simply taking walks.
When lifestyle changes aren’t enough
Despite making certain lifestyle changes to help prevent SVT, if you experience a sudden episode your HCP may recommend vagal maneuvers. These are specific movements or actions that stimulate the vagus nerve, which can slow electrical signals through the heart’s natural pacemaker to help restore a normal heart rate.
Vagal maneuvers include:
- Holding your breath and bearing down
- Immersing your face in ice-cold water to trigger the diving reflex
If vagal maneuvers aren’t effective within 30 minutes, seek medical attention. If you have a heart condition, your HCP may tell you to seek help even sooner.
In these cases, a fast-acting medicine, such as adenosine, can help slow your heart rate. Rarely, those with SVT may undergo cardioversion, a procedure that uses relatively low levels of electricity to shock the heart back into a normal rhythm. Those who experience SVT often and struggle with symptoms may also need to take medicine to slow their heart rate during their episodes. These patients may also need to use antiarrhythmic drugs to help prevent SVT in the first place.
In some cases, SVT may be treated with a procedure called catheter ablation, which involves using extreme heat or cold to destroy tissue in the area of the heart where the abnormal electrical signals are originating. The resulting scar tissue can effectively block these faulty signals.
If you’re experiencing bothersome symptoms of SVT, talk to your HCP about how you can prevent and manage recurring episodes, while developing the treatment plan that’s best for you.