Key Points about Heart Arrhythmias

The primary symptom of arrhythmia is an irregular heartbeat due to any disturbance to electrical impulses that cause heart contractions.

Arrhythmia can be broken down and classified as one of the following:

  • Bradycardia: slow heartbeat
  • Tachycardia: fast heartbeat
  • Irregular heartbeat: flutter or fibrillation
Common related conditions
Angina (Chest Pain) Heart Attack Heart Failure Heart (Cardiovascular) Disease

Overview

A heart arrhythmia, also known as an irregular heartbeat, occurs when your heart beats in irregular patterns - either too quickly or too slowly. This is due to electrical signals that coordinate heartbeats that are not functioning correctly.

Most heart arrhythmias are harmless; however, arrhythmias can become severe or fatal if the irregular heartbeat is caused by a damaged or weakened heart.

According to the American Heart Association (AHA), more than 4 million Americans have a form of recurrent arrhythmias.

Arrhythmia causes

The average person’s healthy, resting heart rate should be between 60-100 beats per minute. There is a correlation between someone’s fitness level and heart rate. The more active and fit the person is, the lower their resting heart rate is.

Several factors can cause the heart to function incorrectly:

  • Alcohol and drug abuse
  • Diabetes
  • Excessive coffee consumption
  • Heart disease
  • Hypertension
  • Hyperthyroidism
  • Mental stress
  • Scarring of the heart
  • Smoking
  • Structural changes to the heart
  • Some herbal treatments
  • Some medications
  • Some dietary supplements

Arrhythmia risk factors

The following risk factors may increase your chances of developing arrhythmia, or an abnormal heart rhythm:

  • High blood pressure
  • Coronary heart disease
  • Smoking
  • High cholesterol
  • obesity/overweight
  • Stress
  • Drug abuse
  • High-fat diet
  • Alcohol abuse
  • Aging
  • Drug abuse
  • Sleep apnea
  • Some over-the-counter medications, dietary supplements, and herbal remedies

Arrhythmia symptoms

Many patients won't have any noticeable symptoms, but during a routine examination, a doctor may detect an arrhythmia.

Even if some patients experience or notice some signs, that doesn't automatically mean there should be a cause for concern. Some patients with serious arrhythmias may not experience symptoms, while those who have symptoms may not have a severe problem.

Depending on the type of arrhythmia, there are different symptoms. Some of the most noticeable signs of arrhythmia include:

  • Fluttering sensation in your chest
  • Fast, irregular heartbeat
  • Slow heartbeat
  • Pain in your chest
  • Breathlessness
  • Lightheadedness
  • Fainting
  • Abnormal sweating

Diagnosing an Arrhythmia

Your doctor can diagnose an arrhythmia by taking a medical history, performing a physical exam, and ordering diagnostic tests.

Medical History

During the exam, your doctor will evaluate your medical history, including a family history of heart problems, to identify any risk factors.
Physical Exam

During the physical exam, your doctor will check for swelling in your legs or feet that could indicate you have an enlarged heart. He or she will also:

  • Check your pulse rate
  • Listen to your heartbeat to establish the rate and rhythm of your heartbeat
  • Determine if you have a heart murmur
  • Evaluate you for other conditions that could be causing your symptoms

Diagnostic tests

Your doctor may also order a variety of tests to confirm your diagnosis:

  • Blood tests
  • Cardiac catheterization
  • Chest X-ray
  • Echocardiography
  • ECK (ECG)
  • Electrophysiology study
  • Holter monitor
  • Implantable loop recorder
  • Stress test
  • Tilt table testing
  • Ultrasound

Arrhythmia treatment

Your doctor will develop a customized treatment plan for you.

Arrhythmia treatment options may include:

  • Healthy lifestyle changes such as maintaining a healthy weight, being physically active, eating a heart-healthy diet, managing stress, quitting smoking can alleviate symptoms of an arrhythmia.
  • Medications may be used in combination with other medications and/or with a pacemaker or procedure. Medications that your doctor may recommend include adenosine, atropine, beta-blockers, blood thinners, calcium channel blockers, digitalis, potassium channel blockers, or sodium channel blockers.
  • Procedures such as cardioversion, catheter ablation, implantable cardioverter defibrillators, or pacemakers 

If you have an underlying condition such as high blood pressure, heart disease, sleep apnea, thyroid disease, or an electrolyte imbalance, your doctor will treat that condition to see if it will eliminate your symptoms.

When should I seek care?

Seek medical health immediately if you begin experiences symptoms of arrhythmia, including lightheadedness, chest pain, or shortness of breath with an irregular heart rhythm.

Next Steps

Your doctor will recommend the best treatment for your case. Changes to your lifestyle and medications may be recommended to help prevent some of the risk factors associated with arrhythmia. Your doctor may recommend changing your diet, begin exercising, quit smoking, and limit caffeine and alcohol. It is crucial to follow the treatment plan your doctor has outlined as well as contact your doctor immediately if your symptoms change.