Supraventricular tachycardia (SVT)

Supraventricular tachycardia (SVT)

An abnormally fast heart rhythm (tachycardia) can arise from the upper or lower chambers of the heart. Tachycardias that involve the upper chambers are called supraventricular tachycardias (SVT). Supraventricular tachycardias are usually not dangerous.

Key points to remember

  • an abnormally fast heart rhythm is called tachycardia
  •  tachycardias can arise from the upper or lower chambers of the heart
  • tachycardias that involve the upper chambers are called supraventricular tachycardia
  • supraventricular tachycardias are usually not dangerous
  • they are not due to a 'heart attack' and in children with an otherwise healthy heart, do not cause sudden death

What is supraventricular tachycardia (SVT)?

A normal heartbeat originates from the sinus node, the heart's pacemaker. The electrical signal passes to the bottom of the heart through a special junction, called the AV node.

DIagram showing how a normal heartbeat works

An abnormally fast heart rhythm (tachycardia) can arise from the upper or lower chambers of the heart, or be a 'circuit' made up of the upper and lower chambers. The heart's electrical activity can be seen well using an electrocardiograph (ECG).

Tachycardias that originate from the lower chambers (the ventricles) are called ventricular tachycardia. Those that involve the upper chambers (the atria) are termed supraventricular tachycardia (SVT).

How dangerous is SVT?

Supraventricular tachycardias are usually not dangerous. They are not due to a 'heart attack' and in children with an otherwise healthy heart, do not cause sudden death. However, if they occur very often or for long periods of time (hours to days) then they can cause difficulty with the pumping action of the heart. This can be dangerous if untreated.

What are the types of supraventricular tachycardia?

Atrial tachycardia

An area of the upper chambers takes over the pacemaker activity of the heart. This is relatively uncommon in children.

Diagram showing atrial tachycardia

Atrial Flutter

A large area of the upper chamber forms an electrical circuit. This rhythm can be seen in children who have had previous heart surgery involving the upper chambers. Some children with atrial flutter are at risk of developing clots because the blood flow in these chambers is slow and disorganized.

Diagram showing atrial Flutter

Atrio-ventricular re-entrant tachycardia (AVRT) 

An extra electrical connection (called an 'accessory pathway') exists between the upper and lower chambers. The wave of electricity that normally passes from the top to the bottom of the heart can now pass back up through the abnormal pathway, forming a re-entry circuit. This is the most common form of SVT in children under 8 years of age. The majority of infants with atrio-ventricular re-entrant tachycardia 'outgrow' the tachycardia during their first year.

Specific diagnoses falling into this category include Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome (WPW) and permanent junctional reciprocating tachycardia (PJRT). WPW can rarely be life threatening in the older child, so special tests and usually curative treatment are recommended if it lasts to school age.

Diagram showing atrio-ventricular re-entrant tachycardia

Atrio-ventricular nodal re-entrant tachycardia (AVNRT) 

The atrio-ventricular node is located between the upper and lower chambers of the heart. It is normally the only area that allows the electrical activity of the heart to pass from the upper chambers to the lower chambers. Sometimes this area can become the source for a tachycardia. This is the most common form of SVT in children over 8 years of age.

Diagram showing atrio-ventricular nodal re-entrant tachycardia

How do I recognise if my child has SVT?

In older children and adolescents, a fast heart rate is often felt as palpitations. They may feel their heart racing at unexpected times such as resting, doing homework, after exercise or eating dinner. Younger children may have difficulty describing this sensation and may complain of chest pain. SVT may rarely cause children or adolescents to pass out (syncope).

Some newborns can be quite unwell if they have had SVT in the womb for a long time. In most infants, however, SVT is well tolerated. The fast heart rate might be noticed while cuddling your baby or during feedings. Some infants develop poor feeding, irritability, or pallor (unnatural paleness) if the SVT continues. If your baby has a fast heart rate very often or shows any of these signs, you should seek medical advice.

When should I seek help urgently?

During a bad attack, your child may become dizzy/less alert, pass out, feel cold, look pale and/or sweaty. Learning to take your child's pulse is an important skill that will help identify when the rhythm is too fast. If you feel a fast heart rate is causing your child to become seriously unwell, call an ambulance.

Always call an ambulance if your child passes out with an attack. If it is SVT, they should wake up quickly. Try 'vagal manoeuvres' (see 'How is an SVT attack stopped?' below). Keep your child lying down, or sitting, until fully recovered.

In an emergency, dial 111 within New Zealand (use the appropriate emergency number in other countries).

How can SVT attacks be prevented?

There are different oral medications (medicines taken by mouth) which can be given to children who suffer from SVT. These medications prevent attacks when taken regularly. The choice of medication depends on the type of tachycardia. Common medicines include:

  • Sotalol
  • Flecainide
  • Atenolol
  • Amiodarone

How is an SVT attack stopped?

'Vagal manoeuvres' can stop an attack of SVT. These work by stimulating the vagus nerve in the chest causing the heart to slow. In an infant, you can try a cold (iced) flannel over their eyes for about 10 seconds. In hospital (only), doctors may immerse a baby's face under cold water for a few seconds.

Children can put their thumb in their mouth and blow hard on it - until they go red in the face. A very cold drink, or standing on their head can work too!

Intravenous medications (medicines put directly into a vein) are used in hospital to stop an attack. The usual medications are Adenosine and Amiodarone.

Electrical cardioversion is rarely needed. This involves using a controlled electrical shock to 'jolt' the heart back to a normal rhythm and is done under a brief general anaesthetic.

Can SVT be cured?

If the tachycardia lasts to school age, the SVT can be cured by physically disabling the part of the heart causing the problem. This is called radio-frequency ablation, and involves a cardiac catheter study where the electrical pathways of the heart are clearly mapped and the problem area identified and disabled. It is usually done under a general anaesthetic, and the catheters (special wires) are passed to the heart from veins in the top of the leg.

This content has been written by health professionals in the Paediatric and Congenital Cardiac Service at Starship Children's Health.

Thank you to Dr Jon Skinner and Dianne Stephenson, Starship Children's Health, for providing the diagrams of the different arrhythmias.

This page last reviewed 18 November 2015.
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