Atrial tachycardia is an unusually fast heartbeat that originates in the atria, or upper chambers, of the heart. It is a type of supraventricular tachycardia (SVT). This means it begins above the ventricles, or lower chambers of the heart.

Atrial tachycardia is a type of irregular heart rhythm that doctors call an arrhythmia. Other arrhythmias that originate in the atria include atrial flutter and atrial fibrillation.

Doctors may use the terms “atrial tachycardia” and “focal atrial tachycardia” interchangeably. This type of tachycardia is not usually harmful but may signal an underlying heart condition requiring treatment.

This article discusses atrial tachycardia in more detail, including its symptoms, causes, potential complications, diagnosis, and treatment. It also explores when to speak with a healthcare professional.

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The heart contains a complex electrical system. Typically, the natural pacemaker in the heart generates an electrical signal that controls the heart rate. This pacemaker usually maintains the heartbeat at a relatively stable rate, increasing or decreasing the heart rate based on the body’s demands.

However, arrhythmias occur when something disrupts this process.

Atrial tachycardia is an arrhythmia with a heart rate greater than 100 beats per minute that originates in the atria, or two upper chambers, of the heart. Healthcare professionals may refer to the condition as focal atrial tachycardia.

In this condition, cells in a part of the atria automatically begin an electrical impulse. However, it may occur due to other underlying health conditions, including structural heart disease and ischemic coronary artery disease.

Learn more about heart disease.

In many cases, atrial tachycardia is benign, which means it is not harmful. However, it may be a risk factor and also a symptom of certain heart issues, such as cardiomyopathy.

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The main symptom of atrial tachycardia is the sensation that the heart is beating much faster than usual. If a person takes their pulse, they may find their heart is beating more than 100 beats per minute.

Some other symptoms a person might notice include:

However, people with atrial tachycardia may be asymptomatic, which means they do not experience any symptoms.

People without heart disease may develop atrial tachycardia. But often, it is a sign of an underlying condition, such as coronary artery disease and structural irregularities in the heart, which may be present at birth or develop over time. Structural irregularities may occur with or without heart failure.

Some other factors may also trigger episodes of atrial tachycardia, including:

Atrial tachycardia is a type of SVT. People who may be more likely to experience SVT include:

  • younger individuals living with anxiety disorders
  • children
  • those who are middle-aged and older
  • females

Over time, atrial tachycardia may damage the heart. This can cause cardiomyopathy, which is a disease that weakens a person’s heart muscle.

Arrhythmias such as atrial tachycardia may also signal an underlying medical issue. Potential complications may vary depending on the underlying cause. If a doctor does not treat any underlying conditions, they may worsen.

In severe cases, people with atrial tachycardia may experience cardiac arrest or unconsciousness. A person should call 911 immediately if they think someone is going into cardiac arrest or becomes unconscious and unresponsive.

Is it a heart attack?

Heart attacks occur when there is a lack of blood supply to the heart. Symptoms include:

  • chest pain, pressure, or tightness
  • pain that may spread to arms, neck, jaw, or back
  • nausea and vomiting
  • sweaty or clammy skin
  • heartburn or indigestion
  • shortness of breath
  • coughing or wheezing
  • lightheadedness or dizziness
  • anxiety that can feel similar to a panic attack

If someone has these symptoms:

  1. Dial 911 or the number of the nearest emergency department.
  2. Stay with them until the emergency services arrive.

If a person stops breathing before emergency services arrive, perform manual chest compressions:

  1. Lock fingers together and place the base of hands in the center of the chest.
  2. Position shoulders over hands and lock elbows.
  3. Press hard and fast, at a rate of 100–120 compressions per minute, to a depth of 2 inches.
  4. Continue these movements until the person starts to breathe or move.
  5. If needed, swap over with someone else without pausing compressions.

Use an automated external defibrillator (AED) available in many public places:

  1. An AED provides a shock that may restart the heart.
  2. Follow the instructions on the defibrillator or listen to the guided instructions.
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A doctor can diagnose atrial tachycardia by monitoring the heart rate and electrical signals in the heart. This usually begins with an electrocardiogram (ECG), which measures electrical patterns in the heart.

Sometimes, an ECG may indicate a typical heart rate because the heart is not currently in an arrhythmia. Longer-term monitoring may help detect an arrhythmia.

For example, a doctor may recommend a Holter monitor. This is a portable device that a person may wear over an extended period to detect unusual heart rhythms.

In other cases, a doctor may recommend monitoring over a period of time in the hospital or another clinical setting under certain conditions, such as while exercising.

A healthcare professional may also order other diagnostic tests to determine the underlying cause of atrial tachycardia. These may include:

If a person is at low risk, with no underlying heart disease, and the symptoms rarely occur or are not causing an issue, a doctor may recommend monitoring the condition, or watching and waiting.

Treatment first focuses on managing underlying causes if a doctor identifies any. For example, a person may need to reduce caffeine, better manage stress, or treat underlying heart disease.

A cardiologist may also prescribe medications such as calcium channel blockers and beta-blockers. These medications slow the heart rate, which can keep a person from having an atrial tachycardia episode.

A person may be able to take these medications daily or as needed. However, it is important to discuss when to take them with a doctor.

If the condition does not respond to treatment with medication, a healthcare professional may recommend a type of cardiac ablation surgery called catheter ablation.

During this surgery, an electrophysiologist inserts a thin, flexible tube through a blood vessel to the heart. They then use radiofrequency energy to destroy the tissue from which the irregular heart rhythm originates.

They can also perform cryoablation, which uses cold temperatures to scar the tissue that is causing the irregular heart rate.

Learn more about the best medication for an irregular heartbeat.

A person cannot self-diagnose atrial tachycardia — even benign arrhythmias may signal an underlying medical condition. So it is important to contact a doctor if a person experiences any symptoms such as:

  • episodes of a rapid heart rate when not exercising or extremely anxious
  • feeling short of breath or dizzy when heart rate increases
  • chest pain

People who have already received an atrial tachycardia diagnosis should contact a doctor if their arrhythmia changes, worsens, or causes new symptoms.

Atrial tachycardia is an arrhythmia with a heart rate greater than 100 beats per minute that originates in the atria of a person’s heart. In many cases, atrial tachycardia is a benign condition, but it may lead to cardiomyopathy over time.

Anyone who experiences symptoms of atrial tachycardia should speak with a healthcare professional. A doctor can conduct diagnostic tests and recommend appropriate treatment if necessary.