Harvard Heart Letter

Ask the doctor: How to slow a racing heart

Q. After several episodes where my heart suddenly started racing, I was diagnosed with supraventricular tachycardia. My doctor said I could try gagging or coughing to help slow down my heart when these episodes occur. Why would those things help?

A. Supraventricular tachycardia (SVT) is caused by an electric problem in the area above the heart's lower chambers, or ventricles. This uncommon disorder can cause the heart to beat more than twice as fast as normal—even up to 300 times a minute. It is more common in younger people than in older folks.

Often, an episode of SVT stops on its own. But if it doesn't, you can try the things your doctor suggested, which are known as vagal maneuvers because they affect the vagus nerve. This nerve runs from the brain to the abdomen and affects many bodily functions, including your heart rate, breathing, and digestion.

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