When to Go to the Hospital for Rapid Heart Rate

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Rapid heart rate, also known as tachycardia, is defined as a heart rate of 100 beats per minute (bpm) or higher. Tachycardia can be a normal body response to certain forms of stress, or it can be due to an abnormal heart rhythm.

This article discusses the symptoms and causes of tachycardia and when to seek medical attention.

Woman checking her pulse

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Normal Heart Rate Ranges

In adults, the normal heart rate is between 60-100 beats per minute (bpm). A slower heart rate is called bradycardia, and a faster heart rate is called tachycardia.

Heart Rate   
<60 bpm Bradycardia 
60-100 bpm Normal Rate
 >100 bpm Tachycardia 

In certain circumstances, a heart rate higher or lower than what's considered normal is nothing to worry about. It all depends on what you're doing.

For example, some people may have a heart rate in the 50s while sleeping, which is completely normal. On the other hand, if you are exercising, you can (and should) expect your heart rate to go above 100 bpm.

How to Measure Heart Rate

To measure heart rate, time your pulse over 15 seconds and multiply that by four to get beats per minute. For example, if you count 20 beats over 15 seconds, your heart rate is 80 bpm.

For a more accurate measurement, take your pulse for 30 seconds and multiple by two. For the most accurate measurement, take your pulse for the entire minute.

How to Locate Your Pulse

The pulse is best felt over the carotid artery by placing two fingers below the angle of the jaw on either side of the trachea (windpipe), but never both sides at once. Alternatively, the pulse can be felt at the radial artery. Look at your palm and place two fingers on the side of your wrist closest to your thumb to feel your radial artery.

Signs of Rapid Heart Rate

Rapid heart rate can cause an uncomfortable feeling, particularly when it occurs suddenly, as with certain abnormal heart rhythms, or arrhythmias. Symptoms can include the following:

  • Palpitations, or the feeling of a racing or pounding heart
  • Lightheadedness
  • Dizziness
  • Chest pain
  • Trouble breathing
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Cardiac arrest, or a loss of consciousness with no pulse

When to Seek Medical Attention

When rapid heart rate is accompanied by chest pain, shortness of breath, or fainting, seek medical attention immediately.

Causes

The heart regulates its rate in response to various situations in order to provide enough blood flow to the body. Certain factors can contribute to increased heart rate, including:

Elevated heart rate can also be caused by an abnormal heart rhythm.

What Causes Arrhythmias?

Arrhythmias with a rapid heart rate can be caused by any of the following:

Types of Rapid Heart Rate

The heart has a specialized electrical conduction system that starts in a group of cells called the sinus node. It is located in the right atrium, one of the heart's upper chambers.

The sinus node fires off a stimulus that travels through the heart in a very specific way to cause the muscle to contract. The result is an organized contraction that pumps blood most efficiently. This is called sinus rhythm.

Sometimes, the electrical stimulus gets caught in a feedback loop. Or, it originates from somewhere outside of the sinus node and results in arrhythmias. Arrhythmias can be treated with medications, or by special procedures such as cardiac ablation.

Electrocardiograms can differentiate normal sinus rhythm from various arrhythmias.

Sinus Tachycardia

When the sinus rhythm described above is in the normal range of 60-100 bpm, it's called normal sinus rhythm. Sinus tachycardia is when the rhythm is originating from the sinus node, but the rate is higher than 100 bpm.

Sinus tachycardia can be completely normal when you are exercising or experiencing emotional stress. It can also be a result of medications and substances, or underlying problems or factors such as:

Atrial Fibrillation

Atrial fibrillation (or "A-fib" for short) happens when the top chamber of the heart is firing out rapid and random electrical stimulation. This leads to an irregular, abnormal heart rhythm, which often is rapid.

Some people may not have any symptoms or even know that they have been in atrial fibrillation. Others may experience very unsettling symptoms like:

  • Fluttering in the chest
  • Lightheadedness
  • Passing out

Patients may benefit from anti-arrhythmic medication or a cardiac ablation. This is a procedure in which a cardiologist uses a catheter to burn or freeze part of the inside of the heart.

A-Fib and Stroke

Atrial fibrillation is serious because it increases the risk of stroke. If you have ever experienced A-fib, you may be able to lower your risk of stroke by taking anticoagulation (blood-thinning) drugs. They may be recommended even if your heart rhythm returns to normal, since the risk of stroke remains.

Atrial Flutter

Atrial flutter is an arrhythmia that is somewhat similar to A-fib, in that it increases the risk of stroke and may require anticoagulation treatment.

However, while atrial fibrillation is irregular, atrial flutter is a regular rhythm. This is because an electrical stimulus travels in a circle in the heart's upper chamber and stimulates the heart to contract at a specific rate. Many people in atrial flutter have a heart rate around 150 bpm.

Atrial flutter is often definitively treated with cardiac ablation.

Supraventricular Tachycardia

Supraventricular tachycardia (SVT) is any heart rhythm that originates above the ventricles.

SVT is an umbrella term that technically includes sinus tachycardia, atrial flutter, and atrial fibrillation. However, most of the time when people refer to SVT, they are talking about one of the following arrhythmias:

These arrhythmias involve abnormalities in the heart's conduction system, such as an "accessory pathway" that allows the electrical conduction to bypass certain areas. These arrhythmias may be treated with medication or cardiac ablation in some cases.

Ventricular Tachycardia

Ventricular tachycardia (VT or "V-tach") is a serious arrhythmia. In V-tach, the electrical stimulus for the heartbeat is coming from a ventricle (the heart's lower chamber) rather than the upper atria.

Sustained VT is life-threatening and can lead to cardiac arrest. This rhythm can be so rapid that the heart is not adequately pumping blood to the brain and other organs. When someone experiences VT, they may not have a pulse and thus will require cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR).

There are several different types and causes of VT. VT is treated with medications, and in some cases ablation may be successful.

Ventricular Fibrillation

Ventricular fibrillation (VF or "V-fib") is the most serious rapid heart rhythm. If you are reading this sentence, you are not experiencing VF.

In VF, the heart's electrical system is sending out disorganized signals so rapidly that it is unable to beat effectively and is not pumping blood to the rest of the body. The affected person will lose consciousness and have no pulse. People in a VF rhythm require CPR.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

In some cases, tachycardia is completely normal. But in other cases, it may be due to a serious arrhythmia.

If you are experiencing concerning symptoms like chest discomfort, shortness of breath, or dizziness, or if you have fainted, you should seek medical attention promptly.

What to Do in a Cardiac Emergency

In a cardiac emergency, attempt the following steps:

  1. If you see someone become unresponsive, feel for a pulse.
  2. If there is no pulse, call for help immediately and start CPR.
  3. Send someone to find an automated external defibrillator (AED). AEDs are devices found in many public areas. They come with very simple instructions and are specifically designed to be easy to apply and use.

Don't be afraid to use an AED if needed—you could save someone's life.

Summary

Rapid heart rate is defined as a heart rate of more than 100 beats per minute. Other symptoms commonly found with a rapid heart rate include palpitations, dizziness, and chest pain.

There are several potential causes for a rapid heart rate. Some may be serious while others are totally harmless and expected. If you experience severe symptoms like chest pain, loss of consciousness, or shortness of breath, seek medical attention.

A Word From Verywell

The symptoms that come with a rapid heart rate can be frightening, but as with exercise, an elevated rate doesn't always mean there is something to worry about. It all depends on the cause. Any necessary treatment will depend on the underlying cause too. If you are concerned about your rapid heart rate, contact a healthcare provider.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is considered a dangerously high heart rate?

    There is no specific cutoff for a heart rate that is dangerously high, but any tachycardia that results in loss of consciousness or persistent chest discomfort, shortness of breath, or dizziness is serious. While heart rate above 100 is considered elevated, a heart rate of up to about 220 minus your age can be considered normal during vigorous exercise.

  • What are the signs of a heart attack?

    The most typical symptom of a heart attack is chest discomfort that may go up to the neck or left shoulder. Some people may not experience chest pain, but can have nausea, shortness of breath, or fatigue. Heart rate may be elevated, normal, or low during a heart attack.

  • How can I measure my heart rate quickly?

    The best place to feel your pulse is either your carotid artery or your radial artery. To find that carotid artery, place two fingers to the side of your neck below the angle of the jaw. To find the radial pulse look at your palm and place two fingers on the side of your wrist closest to your thumb. Count the beats over 15 seconds and multiply the number of beats by four to get your heart rate in beats per minute (bpm).

6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Heart Association. Target heart rates chart.

  2. University of Utah Health. Why is my heart beating so fast?.

  3. Cedars Sinai. Inappropriate sinus tachycardia.

  4. American Heart Association. Why atrial fibrillation matters.

  5. Boyer M, Koplan BA. Atrial flutterCirculation. 2005;112(22). doi:10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.105.540476

  6. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Ventricular fibrillation.

By Angela Ryan Lee, MD
Angela Ryan Lee, MD, is board-certified in cardiovascular diseases and internal medicine. She is a fellow of the American College of Cardiology and holds board certifications from the American Society of Nuclear Cardiology and the National Board of Echocardiography. She completed undergraduate studies at the University of Virginia with a B.S. in Biology, medical school at Jefferson Medical College, and internal medicine residency and cardiovascular diseases fellowship at the George Washington University Hospital. Her professional interests include preventive cardiology, medical journalism, and health policy.