A rapid heart rate can cause lots of anxiety. Some causes are harmless, while others are potentially life-threatening, making it difficult to determine when to call 911, when to try to lower the heart rate at home and when to just wait it out. For example, if you are awakened by intense heart racing with crushing chest pain, you should call 911 immediately. If your heart rate speeds up a little after climbing five flights of stairs, you can just let it slow down on its own. If you have concerns about your heart rate, seek medical attention.
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Common Causes of a Rapid Heart Rate
You may experience a fast heart rate for a variety of reasons, and often the solution is to address the underlying cause. For instance, when a fever triggers the heart to beat faster, treating the fever with appropriate over-the-counter drugs or with a lukewarm bath can slow the heart's pace. Some people with panic attacks, another potential cause of heart racing, use deep, abdominal breathing exercises to help them relax. If dehydration is the cause, replenishing the body with fluids can lower the heart rate. Other causes of a fast heart rate, such as hot flashes, resolve on their own.
Although a rapid heart rate can have many harmless causes, some causes are serious. The heart normally beats between 60 and 100 times each minute. While a slight increase in heart rate is usually harmless, especially in people without heart disease, a very rapid heart rate can cause your blood pressure to plummet to dangerously low levels, which can lead to dizziness or even shock. This can also stress the heart and cause chest pain or a heart attack. When shortness of breath accompanies the rapid rate, you should be concerned. If you experience any of these danger signs -- or if something just "doesn't seem right" and you are concerned -- you should seek immediate medical attention.
Maneuvers Doctors May Recommend
An abnormal heart rhythm called paroxysmal supra ventricular tachycardia, or PSVT, is a good example of the middle ground. While it has the potential to cause a dangerously high heart rate, many people with this condition have been taught physical maneuvers that can abruptly lower their heart rate and make a trip to the emergency room unnecessary. Bearing down as if having a bowel movement, coughing and lowering the head between the knees may lower the heart rate for people with PSVT, though these should only be attempted in nonurgent situations and only if your doctor has recommended them.
Other maneuvers have the potential to lower the heart rate, though they have not gained routine clinical acceptance. Some examples include eyeball pressure, holding your breath, deep breathing, gagging, squatting, swallowing and dipping your head in ice water. Because these techniques have the potential to be harmful if not performed appropriately, avoid them unless you receive specific instructions from your doctor on how to safely perform them.