Table of Contents
What is an arrhythmia?
An arrhythmia is a change in the rhythm of your heartbeat. When the heart beats too fast, it's called tachycardia. When it beats too slow, it's called bradycardia. An arrhythmia can also mean that your heart beats irregularly (skips a beat or has an extra beat).
What are the symptoms of arrhythmia?
Call your doctor if you have any of these symptoms, especially if you have heart disease or have had a heart attack.
At some time or another, most people have felt their heart race or skip a beat. These occasional changes can be brought on by strong emotions or exercise. They usually are not a cause for alarm. Arrhythmias that occur more often or cause other symptoms may be more serious and need to be discussed with your doctor.
- Palpitations or rapid thumping in your chest
- Feeling tired or light-headed
- Passing out
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
Is an arrhythmia serious?
In most people, arrhythmias are minor and are not dangerous. A small number of people, however, have arrhythmias that are dangerous and require treatment. Arrhythmias are also more serious if you have other heart problems. In general, arrhythmias that start in the lower chambers of the heart (called the ventricles) are more serious than those that start in the upper chambers (called the atria). Your doctor will talk with you about the type of arrhythmia you have and whether you need treatment.
What are some of the types of arrhythmias?
- Atrial fibrillation: The heart beats too fast and irregularly. This type of arrhythmia requires treatment and can increase your risk of stroke.
- Paroxysmal atrial tachycardia: The heart has episodes when it beats fast, but regularly. This type of arrhythmia may be unpleasant but is usually not dangerous.
- Ectopic beats: The heart has an extra beat. Treatment usually is not needed unless you have several extra beats in a row and/or other problems with your heart (such as heart disease or congenital heart failure).
- Ventricular tachycardia and ventricular fibrillation: The heart beats too fast and may not pump enough blood. These types of arrhythmias are very dangerous and need immediate treatment.
Causes & Risk Factors
What causes arrhythmia?
The heart has 4 compartments, or chambers. The walls of the heart squeeze together (contract) to push blood through the chambers. The contractions are controlled by an electrical signal that begins in the heart's natural "pacemaker" (called the sinoatrial node). Nerve impulses and hormones in the blood influence the rate of the contractions. A problem in any of these can cause an arrhythmia.
Minor arrhythmias may be caused by excessive alcohol use, smoking, caffeine, stress or exercise. The most common cause of arrhythmias is heart disease, particularly coronary artery disease, abnormal heart valve function and heart failure. However, arrhythmias can occur for no known reason.
Diagnosis & Tests
How do I know if I have an arrhythmia?
Your doctor will ask if you have any of the symptoms of arrhythmia. Your doctor may also do some tests. One of these tests is an electrocardiogram, also called ECG or EKG. During this test, your doctor will have you lie down so your heart can be monitored.
Your doctor may also ask you to walk on a treadmill while he or she monitors your heart, or may want to monitor your heart while you do your daily activities. One way to do this is to wear a machine, called a Holter monitor, that continuously records your heart's rhythms for 24 hours. If your doctor wants to monitor your heart for more than 24 hours, he or she might recommend an event-recorder, a machine that records samples of your heart's rhythms and can be worn for a couple of days or longer. Other tests, called electrophysiologic studies, may also give your doctor information about your heart.
What's the treatment for arrhythmia?
Treatment depends on the type of arrhythmia you have. Some mild arrhythmias require no treatment. Other arrhythmias can be treated with medicines. If another health problem is causing the arrhythmia, treatment is aimed at taking care of that problem. In more serious cases, other treatments are available, such as the following:
- An artificial pacemaker is an electronic device placed under the skin on the chest. It helps the heart maintain a regular beat, especially when the heart beats too slowly.
- Cardiac defibrillation (very brief electric shock) can be used to stop an abnormal rhythm and restore a normal one.
- Surgery can correct certain types of arrhythmias. For example, arrhythmias caused by coronary artery disease may be controlled by bypass surgery. When an arrhythmia is caused by a certain area of the heart, sometimes that part of the heart can be destroyed or removed.
Questions to Ask Your Doctor
- What is the likely cause of my arrhythmia?
- What kind of arrhythmia do I have? Is it life threatening?
- What's the best treatment option for my type of arrhythmia? Medicine? Surgery?
- Will I need a pacemaker or implantable cardioverter-defibrillator?
- How do I know if my condition is getting worse? What should I do if it gets worse?
- What lifestyle changes should I make to reduce my risk of complications?
- How will my life change now that I know I have an arrhythmia? Do I need to avoid any activities?
- Acute Management of Atrial Fibrillation: Part II. Prevention of Thromboembolic Complications by DE King, MD; LM Dickerson, PharmD; JL Sack, MD( 07/15/02, http://www.aafp.org/afp/20020715/261.html)
Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.