A rapid heart rate can be very disturbing. Some causes are harmless, while others are potentially life threatening. This can make it difficult to decide when to call 911, when to try to lower your heart rate at home and when to just wait it out.
But if you're awakened by intense heart racing with crushing chest pain, call 911 immediately. If your heart rate speeds up a little after climbing 5 flights of stairs, you can just let it slow down on its own. If you have any concerns about your heart rate, seek medical attention.
Common Causes of a Rapid Heart Rate
You may experience a fast heart rate for a variety of reasons, and usually the solution is to deal with the underlying cause. For instance, when a fever triggers the heart to beat faster, treating the fever with over-the-counter fever-reducers or a lukewarm bath can slow your heart rate.
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 your heart rate. Other causes of a fast heart rate, such as hot flashes, resolve on their own.
Danger Signs of a Fast Heart Rate
Although a rapid heartbeat 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 fainting.
A fast heartbeat can also stress your heart, causing chest pain or a heart attack. When shortness of breath accompanies the rapid rate, this suggests the rate is too fast for your heart to pump properly. If you experience any of these danger signs — or if something just "doesn't seem right" — seek immediate medical attention.
Maneuvers to Slow the Heart
Paroxysmal supraventricular tachycardia (PSVT) is a type of fast heart beat that may or may not have serious consequences. In PSVT, the heart beat speeds up suddenly and unexpectedly, occurring as distinct episodes lasting for seconds to hours.
Many people with this condition are taught physical maneuvers to quickly lower their heart rate and make a trip to the emergency room unnecessary. They include bearing down as if having a bowel movement, coughing, swallowing or placing your head between your knees. However, these maneuvers should only be attempted if your doctor has recommended them.
Less Common, More Risky Maneuvers
Other maneuvers may quickly lower your heart rate, though they are not commonly recommended for at-home use. Some examples include eyeball pressure, breath holding, deep breathing, gagging, squatting or dipping your head in ice water.
These techniques have the potential to be harmful, especially if they are not performed appropriately. Therefore, do not try them unless your doctor has instructed you how to perform them safely.
Reviewed by Mary D. Daley, M.D.
- Ice Diving Operations; Walt Hendrick, et al.
- American Heart Journal: Heart Rate Variability in Depressive and Anxiety Disorders
- American Family Physician: Diagnosis and Management of Common Types of Supraventricular Tachycardia
- Michigan Medicine (University of Michigan): Vagal Maneuvers for Supraventricular Tachycardia (SVT)
- Circulation: Electrophysiological Mechanisms and Determinants of Vagal Maneuvers for Termination of Paroxysmal Supraventricular Tachycardia