Heart arrhythmia, also referred to as cardiac arrhythmia, is an abnormal rhythm of the heart.
Arrhythmias can occur when the electrical impulses that coordinate your heart rhythm do not travel normally. This causes the heart to beat too fast, too slow, or with an irregular rhythm.
Almost everyone has felt their heart "skip" or “flutter” a beat or two, and speed up in times of fear or excitement or during exercise.
Too much caffeine and certain medications also can cause heart palpitations (heart racing or fluttering) in some people. These types of arrhythmias are generally harmless.
While most arrhythmias are harmless, some can be serious or even life threatening. When a heartbeat is too fast, too slow or irregular, the heart may not be able to pump enough blood to the body.
Arrhythmias can be associated with serious symptoms that can affect your ability to function. Lack of blood flow can damage the brain, heart and other organs.
If irregular heartbeats are frequent or chronic, they can be very serious. Troublesome arrhythmias can be made worse, or can be caused by a weak or damaged heart.
Uncontrolled rapid arrhythmias can result in heart weakness over time.
Types of Arrhythmia?
There are two major types of arrhythmia:
- Tachycardia, where the heart beat is too fast - more than 100 beats per minute
- Bradycardia, where the heartbeat is to slow – less than 60 beats per minute.
Arrhythmias are identified by where they originate in the heart and whether they cause the heart to beat slow or fast.
- Arrhythmias that start in the atria are called atrial or supraventricular (above the ventricles) arrhythmias.
- Rapid heart rhythms originating in the atria include atrial fibrillation, atrial flutter, and supraventricular tachycardia.
- Arrhythmias that start in the ventricle include ventricular tachycardia and ventricular fibrillation. These are serious, often life-threatening arrhythmias since the ventricles do most of the pumping. Ventricular fibrillation is the most common cause of sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) and is fatal if not treated within a few minutes.
- Slow heart rhythms occur when the hearts normal pacemaker fails or when there is a conduction block within the conduction pathways.
Symptoms of Arrhythmia
Arrhythmias may not cause any signs or symptoms. In fact, your doctor might find you have an arrhythmia during a routine examination. Symptoms of a heart arrhythmia include:
- A “fluttering” sensation in your chest
- A racing heartbeat (tachycardia)
- A slow heartbeat (bradycardia)
- Chest pain
- Shortness of breath
- Fainting (syncope) or near fainting
Causes of Arrhythmia
Risk factors and causes of heart arrhythmias include:
- Heart disease
- Electrolyte imbalances in your blood
- Structural abnormalities of the heart
- Abnormal electrical pathways
When it comes to arrhythmia it’s always better to err on the side of caution. If you have a concern about an irregular heartbeat, you should contact your doctor.
Diagnosis of Arrhythmia
Arrhythmias can be hard to diagnose, especially the types that only cause symptoms every once in a while. Doctors diagnose arrhythmias based on medical and family histories, a physical exam, and the results from tests and procedures.
These typically include blood tests, a chest X-ray, an EKG (electrocardiogram) that detects and records the heart’s electrical activity, and an echocardiogram that uses sound waves to create a moving picture of your heart.
Sometimes it is necessary to apply a heart monitor to be worn for a specific period of time to detect intermittent arrhythmias. An invasive procedure called an electrophysiology study is sometimes performed to assess the conduction system of the heart.
Treatment Options for Heart Arrhythmia
The kind of treatment(s) you may receive depends on the severity of your condition. Possible treatments for heart arrhythmia include:
- Electrophysiology procedures (EP study, mapping, ablation)
- Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator (ICD)
- Medical Management
- Pacemaker Implantation
- Transesophageal Echocardiogram
- Heart Surgery
Frequently Asked Questions:
Can a Heart Arrhythmia ever just go away?
Yes. People can have only one episode. This can be caused by pericarditis (membrane or sac around your heart is inflamed), alcohol or other drugs, acute illness, or electrolyte abnormalities.
Often people who have an episode may have more in their lifetime and most are harmless.
When should I have palpitations checked out?
If you notice your heart beating out of its typical rhythm, you should talk to a doctor. This can feel as if your heart is beating with extra and/or fast heartbeats, or your heart seems to skip a beat.
Can you live a normal life with arrhythmia?
Yes. Some people may require medication or a medical procedure to control their condition. Most people are able to enjoy a normal, active lifestyle with treatment.