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Supraventricular Tachycardia


Supraventricular tachycardia includes a diverse group of abnormal rhythms originating from the atria, the upper chambers of the heart, or the atrioventricular (AV) node, a small mass of tissue located in the wall of the right atrium. The AV node slows the impulse coming from the atria before it passes through to the ventricles. Atrioventricular (AV) nodal reentry tachycardia is one example of supraventricular tachycadia.

Our approach to supraventricular tachycardia

Over the past decades, UCSF has helped pioneer breakthroughs in the understanding and treatment of arrhythmias, or heart rhythm disorders, such as supraventricular tachycardia. We offer comprehensive evaluations to pinpoint the source of the arrhythmia, as well as the most innovative treatments available to restore the heart's normal rhythm. Our experienced team succeeds in curing 95 to 98 percent of patients with supraventricular tachycardia.

While providing specialized, tailored care is our primary focus, we are also dedicated to finding new treatments through research. Patients who choose to participate in clinical trials may have access to experimental therapies, devices or medications that might work better for them than the established options.

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Signs & symptoms

A heart that beats too fast or too slow can cause:

  • Lightheadedness or dizziness
  • Palpitations (skipping, fluttering or pounding in the chest)
  • Fatigue
  • Chest pressure or pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fainting spells

Sometimes, there are no symptoms. Left untreated, certain abnormal heart rhythms can cause death. On the other hand, some arrhythmias are common, so-called benign arrhythmias. that have no severe symptoms. One of the goals of evaluation is to sort out the serious from benign forms of heart beat disturbances.

An abnormal heart rhythm is a change in either the speed or the pattern of the heartbeat — the heart may beat too slowly, too rapidly or irregularly. When the heart beats too slowly, too little blood is pumped out to the rest of the body. When the heart beats too quickly, it cannot fill completely so the body doesn't receive the blood volume it needs to function properly. Slow heart rates are called bradycardias. Fast heart rates are called tachycardias.

The heart is made up of four chambers. The upper chambers, called the atriums, receive and collect blood.

The lower chambers, called the ventricles, pump blood to the body.

Working together, the chambers of the heart move life-sustaining blood throughout the body. Please see How the Heart Works to learn more.

There are several types of abnormal heart rhythms, some occur in one of the atriums and are called atrial, others occur in the ventricles and are called ventricular.


If your doctor suspects that you may have an arrhythmia, he or she will order one or more of the following diagnostic tests to determine the source of your symptoms.

  • Electrocardiogram. The electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG) records the heart's electrical activity. Small patches called electrodes are placed on your chest, arms and legs, and are connected by wires to the ECG machine. Your heart's electrical impulses are translated into a wavy line, enabling doctors to determine the pattern of electrical current flow in the heart and to diagnose arrhythmias and heart damage.
  • Holter monitor. A holter monitor is a small, portable machine that you wear for 24 hours. It enables continuous recording of your ECG as you go about your daily activities. You will be asked to keep a diary log of your activities and symptoms. This monitor may detect arrhythmias that might not show up on a resting EKG that only records for a few seconds.
  • Exercise stress test. The exercise stress (treadmill) test enables physicians to record your heart's electrical activity which may not occur at rest.
  • Event recorder. An event recorder (loop recorder) is a small portable transtelephonic monitor that may be worn for several weeks. This type of recorder is good for patients who don't experience symptoms very often. The monitor "loops" a two-minute recording into its memory that is continually overwritten. When you experience symptoms, you press a "record" button on the monitor which stores a correlating strip of EKG material. The recordings are telephoned to a 24-hour monitoring station and faxed directly to the requesting physician.
  • Magnetic source imaging. Magnetic source imaging (MSI) is used as an overlay to magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). The device senses weak magnetic fields generated by heart muscle tissue and localizes the arrhythmia non-invasively to save time during the invasive study.
  • Tilt table test. Tilt table testing is used to diagnose fainting or black-out spells (vasovagal syncope) by trying to reproduce the black-out episodes. You will be tilted upright to about 60 degrees on a special table for a period of time with continuous recording of your ECG and blood pressure.
  • The Electrophysiology (EP) study. The EP study allows doctors to acquire more accurate, detailed information and, in many cases, provide treatment (i.e. catheter ablation) during the same session.


Several treatment options are available, depending on the type and severity of your arrhythmia, and test results including an electrophysiology study. You and your doctor will decide the one right for you.


Certain anti-arrhythmic drugs change electrical signals in the heart and help prevent irregular or rapid heart rhythms.

Follow-up electrophysiology study

To ensure your medication is working properly after two or more days, your doctor may perform a follow-up electrophysiology study. The goal is to find the drug that works best for you.

Catheter ablation

A technique pioneered at UCSF, radiofrequency catheter ablation, destroys or disrupts parts of the electrical pathways causing arrhythmias, providing relief for patients who may not respond well to medications or who prefer not to take medications.

Catheter ablation involves threading a tiny metal-tipped wire catheter through a vein or artery in the leg and into the heart. Fluoroscopy, which allows cardiologists to view on a monitor the catheter moving through the vessel, provides a road map.

Other catheters, usually inserted through the neck, contain electrical sensors to help find the area causing the short-circuits. The metal-tipped catheter is then maneuvered to each problem site and radiofrequency waves — the same energy used for radio and television transmission — gently burn away each unwanted strand of tissue.

When catheter ablation was first tried, direct current shocks were used, but researchers later developed the use of radiofrequency waves — a more precise form of energy. With radiofrequency catheter ablation, patients usually leave the hospital in one day, compared to open heart surgery, which requires a week stay and months of recovery.

For conditions like Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome, in which a hair-thin strand of tissue creates an extra electrical pathway between the upper and lower chambers of the heart, radiofrequency ablation offers a cure. It has become the treatment of choice for patients with that disorder who don't respond well to drug therapy or who have a propensity for rapid heart rates.

Even in arrythmias that can be controlled with drugs, the procedure has been shown to be cost effective because it eliminates medication failures that require hospitalization. It also is an attractive option for elderly patients who are prone to suffer side effects from drug therapy and women of childbearing age who can't take medications because of potential health risk to the fetus.

Studies have shown that catheter ablation is more cost effective than drug therapy or surgery. Patients who undergo the procedure also experience remarkable improvement in quality of life.

A UCSF study of nearly 400 ablation patients with dangerously rapid heart rates — nearly a third of whom were considered candidates for open heart surgery — found that one month after the procedure, 98 percent required no medication and 95 percent reported that their overall health had markedly improved. The study also found improvement in the patients' ability to work, exercise and take on physical activities.

Internal cardioversion

Internal cardioversion for conversion of atrial fibrillation and atrial flutter to a normal sinus rhythm also was developed here at UCSF Medical Center in 1991. Internal cardioversion is low energy electrical shock (1 to 10 joules) delivered internally in the heart through two catheters inserted in a vein in the groin and a small electrode pad applied to the chest. This procedure is performed in the electrophysiology lab by our electrophysiologist.

During the internal cardioversion, short-acting sedatives are given to make the patient sleepy.

Atrial flutter is successfully "cured" by radiofrequency catheter ablation, but traditional treatment to restore atrial fibrillation to sinus rhythm, or normal heart beat, has been medications and external cardioversion.

External cardioversion is delivery of high energy shocks of 50 to 300 joules through two defibrillator pads attached to the chest. In some cases, external cardioversion has failed because the electrical current has to first travel through chest muscle and skeletal structures before reaching the heart.

Internal cardioversion has been performed when medications and external cardioversion have failed to restore a patient's rhythm back to a normal sinus rhythm.

UCSF's success rate of converting a patient from atrial fibrillation to normal sinus rhythm with internal cardioversion has been 95 percent. The less time a patient is in atrial fibrillation, the easier it is to cardiovert back to a normal rhythm, but even patients with long-standing chronic atrial fibrillation can be converted successfully to a normal rhythm through internal cardioversion. With internal cardioversion, our electrophysiology team was successful in converting a patient who had been in chronic atrial fibrillation for eight years.

Implantable cardioverter defibrillator

An implantable cardioverter defibrillator is a device for people who are prone to life-threatening rapid heart rhythms. It is slightly larger than a pacemaker and usually implanted beneath the skin below the collarbone. It is connected to pace wires positioned inside the heart via a vein. It can deliver an electric shock to the heart when it determines the heart rate is too fast. It also can pace or stimulate the heart when it's beating too slow.

Biventricular pace maker

A new type of pacemaker, approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, paces both ventricles of the heart to coordinate contractions and improve pumping ability. The device does the following:

  • Increases the amount of daily activities a patient can perform without the symptoms of heart failure
  • Extends the exercise capacity of heart failure patients as measured by the distance they can walk in 6 minutes
  • Improves the overall quality of life as judged by standard measurements
  • Promotes changes in heart anatomy to improve cardiac function
  • Reduces the number of days patients spend in the hospital and the total number of hospitalizations

CRT devices work by pacing both the left and right ventricles simultaneously, resynchronizing the muscle contractions and improving the efficiency of the weakened heart.

In the normal heart, the electrical conduction system delivers electrical impulses to the left ventricle in a highly organized pattern of contractions that pump blood out of the ventricle very efficiently.

In systolic heart failure caused by an enlarged heart (dilated cardiomyopathy), this electrical coordination is lost. Uncoordinated heart muscle function leads to inefficient ejection of blood from the ventricles.

UCSF Health medical specialists have reviewed this information. It is for educational purposes only and is not intended to replace the advice of your doctor or other health care provider. We encourage you to discuss any questions or concerns you may have with your provider.

Recommended reading

FAQ: Electrophysiology Study and Catheter Ablation

Find commonly asked questions regarding Electrophysiology Study and Catheter Ablation including, how long the procedure is, when to return to work and more.

FAQ: Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillators

Many people have questions about implantable cardioverter defibrillators (ICDs), including how they work and why a doctor might offer one as part of treatment.

Electrophysiology Procedure

An electrophysiology (EP) study is a test performed to assess the heart's electrical system or activity and is used to diagnose abnormal heartbeats. Learn more.

How the Heart Works

The heart is muscular and hollow, constantly pumping blood to deliver oxygen and nutrients to the body and is comprised of four compartments. Learn more.

Preparing for an EP Study

Before electrophysiology (EP) study or catheter ablation procedure, please use this list to prepare and ensure your visit is as comfortable as possible.

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