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What Is Paroxysmal Supraventricular Tachycardia?

Paroxysmal atrial tachycardia is a condition that causes sudden and irregular heartbeats.
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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 09 July 2014
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Paroxysmal supraventricular tachycardia (PSVT) is a heart condition describing when people have sudden abnormal heart rhythms that are generally caused by unusual electrical pathways in the atria. More specifically, paroxysmal is defined as sudden attack or occurrence, supraventricular refers to abnormal electrical pathways and signals above the ventricles, and tachycardia means a very fast heartbeat. This condition may be benign and require no treatment, but people suffering from many episodes of PSVT could need a variety of interventions or treatments. These depend on the degree to which PSVT interferes with daily living, since it’s possible for some people to be unaware they have the condition, even if episodes of fast heartbeat occur frequently.

There may be several causes of paroxysmal supraventricular tachycardia. A medical condition called Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome (WPW), where people possess an extra electrical pathway in the atrioventricular node, is one possible cause. In other cases, unusual electrical signals occur in other parts of the atria and aren’t classified as a syndrome. In each instance, the heart sends signals to the atria to beat more quickly than it should.

People don’t always realize they’re having episodes of paroxysmal supraventricular tachycardia, even if the heart is beating very fast, between 150-250 beats per minute. An episode may be so short it isn’t noticed. Other people do notice this condition, have longer episodes lasting a few hours, and can feel things like palpitations.

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Other symptoms of paroxysmal supraventricular tachycardia include anxiety and rapid breathing. Some people confuse PSVT with panic attacks. Though rarer, the condition has also been associated with symptoms like tiredness, dizziness or some people pass out, particularly if the episode is very long.

Usually a PSVT episode resolves in a couple of hours, but some people may require treatment to end the rapid heartbeat. This may include maneuvers like cardioversion, where the heart is given electrical shocks to cause it to diverge from the abnormal rhythm pathway. Cardioversion treats the episode, but it doesn’t cure paroxysmal supraventricular tachycardia. To treat the disease on a more consistent basis, other strategies are considered.

As mentioned, if episodes are short and not too bothersome, there may not be a need to treat PSVT. On the other hand, some people are made greatly uncomfortable by episodes and these people do need medical assistance. Doctors might first start by giving medications that can help control heart rhythm.

If medications are ineffective another option is to try cardiac ablation. This is performed as part of a catheterization. Electrophysiologists use radiofrequent waves to remove any abnormal pathways they can find. Though not successful in all instances, many people are helped with this PSVT treatment.

It’s impossible to know cause of rapid heartbeat when it first occurs. Given the potential serious causes, anyone experience fast heartbeat, without clear cause like being in the middle of strenuous aerobic exercise, needs to discuss this matter with a doctor. There are other causes besides PSVT that aren’t generally so benign, and these need medical attention right away.

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