Sick Sinus Syndrome

Last Updated February 2021 | This article was created by editorial staff and reviewed by Deepak S. Patel, MD, FAAFP, FACSM

What is sick sinus syndrome?

Sick sinus syndrome is the name for several conditions in which the sinus node in your heart doesn’t work the correct way. The sinus node (also called the sinoatrial node) is a natural pacemaker in your heart that helps your heart beat steadily. An electric current starts in one of the upper chambers (called the atria) of the heart and goes through the heart to the bottom chambers (called the ventricles). The sinus node can increase your heart rate during times of high demand, such as during exercise. If you have sick sinus syndrome, your heart rate may be too slow or too fast to meet the needs of your body.

About 1 in 600 people with heart problems have sick sinus syndrome. It can happen to people of any age. Women are affected about as often as men.

Symptoms of sick sinus syndrome

Some people with sick sinus syndrome don’t feel ill or have only mild feelings of illness. Other people have symptoms that come and go. The following are some possible symptoms of sick sinus syndrome:

  • Feeling like you are going to pass out
  • Feeling like your heart is skipping beats or beating too fast or too slow
  • Feeling dizzy
  • Having chest pain
  • Being short of breath
  • Having difficulty thinking or remembering things
  • Feeling tired

What causes sick sinus syndrome?

Sick sinus syndrome sometimes can be caused by other heart conditions. It also may be caused because of advanced age. In many cases, however, the cause is unknown.

How is sick sinus syndrome diagnosed?

Other medical problems can cause the same symptoms as sick sinus syndrome. Your doctor may order lab tests to help determine why you’re having your symptoms. These labs can be helpful in ruling out other causes for your symptoms. Your doctor will likely also order some tests that check your heart. One of these tests is electrocardiography (also called ECG). During this test, your doctor will have you lie down so your heart can be monitored. The ECG machine makes a picture (or tracing) that shows your heart’s electrical signals. Your doctor may also have you wear a special monitor, called a Holter monitor, for a few days to keep track of your heart’s electrical signals.

Can sick sinus syndrome be prevented or avoided?

Do what you can to keep your heart healthy. Eat a nutritious dietExercise regularly if your doctor says you can. Don’t smoke. Limit alcohol. These things may help you prevent heart disease. However, sick sinus syndrome isn’t preventable in all cases.

Sick sinus syndrome treatment

Most people who have sick sinus syndrome will need to have an artificial pacemaker put into their body. A pacemaker is a small electronic device that’s put under the skin on your chest. It helps your heart keep a regular beat, especially when your heart beats too slowly.

If you have a pacemaker and your heart rate is too fast, your doctor may prescribe medicine to control it. In addition, your doctor may want to change some of your other medicines because some medicines can make sick sinus syndrome worse.

Living with sick sinus syndrome

Sick sinus syndrome usually gets worse with time. People with sick sinus syndrome have a higher chance of getting other heart-related conditions. These include atrial fibrillation (an irregular heartbeat), heart failure, and cardiac arrest. Some people with sick sinus syndrome may have a greater risk of having a stroke. These people might be prescribed a blood-thinning medicine, such as warfarin.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • What is the likely cause of my symptoms?
  • What is the best treatment option for me?
  • Will I need a pacemaker? What does that procedure involve?
  • How will my life change after I have a pacemaker?
  • Will I be able to return to my normal levels of activity?
  • Is it safe for me to exercise? What kind of exercise should I do?
  • Does sick sinus syndrome put me at risk for any other health problems?