Saturday, March 5, 2016
At The Edge Of My Notes........
The diagram at the top of this post is an example of one collection of words and symbols that are in the corner of one page of my notes. It took me about 38 seconds to draw it, in pieces as I heard the various elements being described. The HR in the middle of the circle here is heart rate. Arrows in the up direction mean increasing and the down direction is decreasing. I don't like to see elevated heart rates. I have seen too many middle aged stimulant users with cardiomyopathy and had too many conversations with Cardiologists about whether or not sinus tachycardia is a benign finding or not. I have obsessed far too long about who I can treat with medications based on their heart rate being greater than 100 beats per minute (bpm). I am not reassured by the latest review in UpToDate on idiopathic sinus tachycardia and benign outcomes (1). I doubt that the people in those studies are the same people I am seeing on stimulants, antidepressants, antipsychotics, street drugs, alcohol, caffeine and plenty of tobacco. In the middle of trying to construct an impossible timeline of insomnia, anxiety, depression, childhood adversity, adult psychological trauma and multiple medical problems I am drawn temporarily to the little heart rate circle and I am trying to figure it out. It all starts with THC and proceeds clockwise.
I have been impressed by the number of daily cannabis smokers who at some point notice that they are getting anxious and panicky from it. Despite all of the hype by the pro-marijuana contingent, most people can relate to augmented heart rate and increased intensity of heart beats when smoking marijuana. It happens when THC drops the blood pressure and your heart acts reflexively. That is typically ignored by young smokers, unless they have had a panic attack. In that case, it feels like they are starting to have a panic attack and they start to feel very uneasy. In many cases they start to develop panic attacks every time they smoke. That often leads to them discontinuing the use of cannabis, since panic attacks are very unpleasant experiences. So THC can lead to increased heart rate.
Caffeine is ubiquitous in American society. It affects too many dimensions in psychiatry to not be asked about. The answers are often shocking. With the availability of espresso in most places, I often get an estimate in shots of espresso per day. For filtered coffee fans, I learned to ask the question: "If you are home alone - do you ever drink the whole pot of coffee by yourself?" And then there are the additional estimates of mg caffeine in terms of black tea, green tea, and every form of esoteric energy drink. I can usually track down the mg caffeine using some online resource. The DSM-5 suggests that caffeine consumption "...well in excess of 250 mg" can be a problem. I find myself routinely advising people on how to get their caffeine consumption down to less than 1,000 mg/day and use it in the mornings - as a starting point. In some cases, I am told that people are drinking beverages that combine alcohol, caffeine, and some other questionable compounds. The pharmacokinetics of caffeine are important. Most people know what happens if they get wired or precipitate a panic attack with a triple shot of espresso, but they don't know what can happen to sleep with steady state levels of caffeine.
Exercise can be an important source of accelerated heart rate. In most cases it is just rushing to get the vital signs done, but there are other important causes. There are the deconditioned folks who decide that they are going to turn over a completely new leaf by starting to exercise vigorously. I may be seeing them a day after and exercise session and they still have an elevated heart rate. There are the conditioned folks who still overdo it. That has led me to ask people if they are wearing a heart rate monitor and what their goals are. Some of the responses are shocking. I have had many people tell me that they are running their heart rate well beyond their age-determined maximal heart rate for a long time. I have never had a person tell me why that might not be a good idea. It is an opportunity to educate people on how to not overdo it and either maintain conditioning or start some basic conditioning. It also leads me to consider some people who may have undiagnosed intrinsic heart disease and what further evaluations need to be done.
Medications can be an important direct or indirect cause of tachycardia. As a group, older medications like tricyclic antidepressants and anticholinergics were more reliable causes. Of current day medications stimulants are probably the most important cause of increased heart rate. In general stimulants increase heart rate 3 - 10 beats per minute (bpm) and increase blood pressure by 1.5-14 points. More recent generation medications are rarer causes, but it is always important to look for that one person in a hundred or a thousand. Is that really an idiosyncratic reaction or is it a sign of something worse like neuroleptic malignant syndrome or serotonin syndrome? In my current line of work withdrawal from medications is a more important cause of tachycardia than a direct effect of the medication itself. Coming off of benzodiazepines, barbiturates, and clonidine are important causes. Tachycardia and various rare cardiovascular effects are still listed in most package inserts and that is an important reason for monitoring vital signs and electrocardiograms.
A lot of people seem to think that anxiety is a potent cause of tachycardia. That may be true for panic attacks but on an ongoing basis I have found that anger is much more likely to elevate pulse and blood pressure. I have seen persistent tachycardia in the 120-130 bpm range due to anger. I have seen patients started on antihypertensives because of this and I think it is a good idea as long as there is a plan to decrease and stop the medication when the anger resolves. I always tell my patients that an explanation (a white coat, life stressors, too much caffeine, etc) only gets you so far. If you are still running a high pulse and blood pressure at home it should probably be treated and closely followed. I personally don't like to see people running systolic blood pressures in excess of 150, diastolics greater than 95, or pulses greater than 100 while they wait for "lifestyle changes" to take effect, but I know for a fact that there are primary care physicians out there who disagree with me.
Anxiety especially the persistently panicky person can have elevated pulses. Many of these folks look thin and hypermetabolic. They are routinely checked for hyperthyroidism and they are always negative. I listened to a NASA physician lecture about a subgroup of patients with this body habitus many years ago. He said that thin people with arachnodactyly can be bothered by anxiety and panic and the best treatment was moderate levels of exercise like walking rather than medication. He defined the condition as anyone who can grasp their wrist with their thumb and middle finger and notice that they overlap at least to the most distal joint of the middle finger.
Epidemiological studies show that people who are sleep deprived or have their circadian rhythm disrupted have poorer cardiovascular health. There are many people who develop tachycardia in this setting. Sleep disordered breathing disorders can also be an important cause of tachycardia in the daytime. These folks often have an associated problem like undiagnosed atrial fibrillation. Many of the commercial automatic blood pressure machines do not detect irregular pulses, so it is important to check pulses and pulse deficits in the office. All psychiatrists should have access to lab facilities where electrocardiograms can be run and referral facilities to do the necessary testing and management of the identified conditions.
All of that and more flows from a little 2 x 2 inch drawing on one of my intake notes. I would have thought by now that some enterprising software developer would have come up with a system of icons that I could just point to and grow on a computer tablet, but so far it seems that electronic health record developers really are not designing software with physicians in mind. They would rather have us enter full text or more commonly very choppy phrase based notes than using icon based full information approaches. My little HR circle contains a lot of information and the only way I have seen the information content estimated is by constructing all of the possible text based narratives and then measuring the amount of text.
That method has its limitations because when I (or any other physician) makes a drawing it is connected to our own unique conscious state. There is certainly overlap with all physicians to some extent or at least the ones with an HR icon in their notes. The overlap gets closer among those of us who are looking for arachnodactyly.
George Dawson, MD, DLFAPA
1: Homoud MK . Sinus tachycardia: evaluation and management. In: UpToDate, Cheng A, Downey BC (Eds), UpToDate, Waltham, MA. accessed on March 5, 2016.