Dealing with Tachycardia (Rapid Heartbeat)

Tachycardia is a generic term for a rapid heartbeat. Here’s my story of dealing with it over the past ten years or so. Since I am not a doctor, my apologies in advance for any layman explanations which may not be 100% correct physiologically.

I’ve had occasional bursts of tachycardia starting with childhood. Initially they were minor annoyances happening about once a year. Eventually they became more frequent and sustained enough to seek a cardiologist. (Though fortunately for me, the duration of my episodes could be measured in minutes and not hours.) He wired me up, put me on a treadmill until he saw the symptoms, then prescribed me Atenolol (a beta blocker medication, typically prescribed for high blood pressure) and sent me on my way.

As someone in my 30s (at that time) leading an active lifestyle, I didn’t want to be doomed to a life of taking beta blockers (which lower the maximum heart rate and put a damper on athletic performance), at least not without a second opinion. I found a cardiologist who specializes in catheter ablations. After some time wearing a monitor and collecting data, he recommended an electrophysiology (EP) study and possible catheter ablation, and I agreed. I went to the hospital, he did the EP study, found the source of the problem (AVNRT), and performed an ablation on that tissue. After an overnight stay for observation, I was totally cured, problem solved!

Well, not so fast. A few years later, I started seeing symptoms creeping up on me again. After a few visits with my cardiologist, we decided I would go in for another possible ablation. This time around we never got past the EP study, as there were too many redundant electrical pathways to successfully do any ablation. The previous AVNRT was still gone, but this was definitely a new atrial tachycardia which had developed independently, different from the previous one even though the symptoms were similar. So during my hospital stay, he weaned me onto Sotalol before I was discharged.

At my follow up appointment, I asked my cardiologist why I needed to be on a beta blocker, given that my particular tachycardia was more of an annoyance than a danger. As an active person, I would rather live with the occasional tachycardia than deal with the lower maximum heart rate from the medication. He repeatedly kept evading me, until he finally said something to the effect that only professional athletes need to be worried about my concerns. Obviously, since I was not curable, I was simply put on medication and pushed aside. That was the last time I saw him, and I weaned myself off the Sotalol and found another cardiologist.

In the meantime, I had done my own research and found that tachycardia can be triggered by a magnesium deficiency and/or caffeine. So I eliminated caffeine from my diet and started taking a liquid magnesium supplement. That worked, and my new cardiologist said that was an acceptable regimen. She also said that my kind of tachycardia can tend to come and go over the years, and I could even try to reintroduce caffeine and see how I felt. Now a couple years later, I am now completely symptom free (except occasionally when I’m dehydrated, have a lack of sleep, or fighting a cold or flu), even though I now do not regularly take the magnesium supplement or specifically limit my caffeine usage (though I am not a regular coffee drinker).

Epilogue

I originally wrote this almost a year ago for a friend of a friend who had been going through something similar. Now I’m finally getting around to posting it for another friend. Since I’m posting this online to a wider audience, I have to offer the caution that some arrhythmias (irregular heart beat) can be dangerous while others relatively benign, even though they may “feel” similar when they occur. Only your doctor can make a definitive diagnosis.

However, based on my experience, I do stand by my statement that some (many?) doctors will simply recommend medication, even if there are other treatment options available. I don’t recommend ignoring your doctor, but I do recommend doing your homework and asking intelligent questions. And, if you’re able, don’t be afraid to switch doctors if your gut says you’re being pushed aside. After all, if I didn’t, I’d be unnecessarily taking beta blockers for the rest of my life.

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