What are abnormal heart rhythms or arrhythmia?
An arrhythmia is a problem with the rate or rhythm of your heartbeat. It means that your heart beats too quickly, too slowly, or with an irregular pattern. When the heart beats faster than normal, it is called tachycardia. When the heart beats too slowly, it is called bradycardia. The most common type of arrhythmia is atrial fibrillation, which causes an irregular and fast heartbeat.
Many factors can affect your heart’s rhythm, such as having had a heart attack, smoking, congenital heart defects, and stress. Some substances or medicines may also cause irregular heartbeat.
Types of arrhythmia
The most common types of arrhythmia include:
- Premature atrial contractions
- Supraventricular tachycardia or paroxysmal SVT
- Sick sinus syndrome
- Atrial fibrillation
- Atrial flutter
- Premature ventricular complex, or PVCs
- Ventricular tachycardia
- Ventricular fibrillation
- Supraventricular arrhythmias
Causes of arrhythmia
Causes of arrhythmia include:
- Coronary artery disease
- High blood pressure
- Changes in the heart muscle (cardiomyopathy)
- Valve disorders
- Electrolyte imbalances in the blood, such as sodium or potassium
- Injury from a heart attack
- The healing process after heart surgery
- Other medical conditions
- Excessive stress
Arrhythmia risk factors
Things that may make you more likely to have an irregular heartbeat include your:
- Age: The chances go up as you get older.
- Genes: Your odds might be higher if a close relative has had an arrhythmia. Some types of heart disease can also run in families.
- Lifestyle: Alcohol, tobacco, and recreational drugs can raise your risk.
- Medical conditions: High blood pressure, diabetes, low blood sugar, obesity, sleep apnea, and autoimmune disorders are among the conditions that may cause heart rhythm problems.
- Environment: Things in the world around you like air pollution can make irregular heartbeat more likely.
Symptoms of arrhythmias
Symptoms of arrhythmias are varied and can indicate either a harmless condition or one that needs immediate attention. To be safe, you should consult your doctor if you have any of these symptoms.
The most common signs and symptoms of arrhythmias include:
- A feeling that your heart is skipping a beat
- A heartbeat that is too fast or “racing”
- A heartbeat that is too slow
- An irregular heartbeat
- Pauses between heartbeats
More serious symptoms include:
- Chest pain
- Shortness of breath
- Fainting or near-fainting
- Severe heart palpitations
Diagnosis of arrhythmia
If your symptoms persist or there’s a history of unexplained sudden death in your family, your GP needs to refer you to a heart specialist (a cardiologist or electrophysiologist who specializes in heart rhythm disorders).
ECG: During an ECG, sensors (electrodes) that can detect the electrical activity of your heart are attached to your chest and sometimes to your limbs. An ECG measures the timing and duration of each electrical phase in your heartbeat.
Echocardiogram: In this non-invasive test, a hand-held device (transducer) placed on your chest uses sound waves to produce images of your heart’s size, structure, and motion.
Implantable loop recorder: This device detects abnormal heart rhythms and is implanted under the skin in the chest area.
Electrophysiological testing and mapping: In this test, doctors thread thin, flexible tubes (catheters) tipped with electrodes through your blood vessels to a variety of spots within your heart. Once in place, the electrodes can map the spread of electrical impulses through your heart.
Stress test: During a stress test, you’ll be asked to exercise on a treadmill or stationary bicycle while your heart activity is monitored. If doctors are evaluating you to determine if coronary artery disease may be causing the irregular heartbeat, and you have difficulty exercising.
Treatment for arrhythmia
Usually, treatment for an arrhythmia is required only if the arrhythmia is causing significant symptoms or if it’s putting you at risk of more serious arrhythmia or arrhythmia complication.
Treating slow heartbeats: If slow heartbeats don’t have a cause that can be corrected, doctors often treat them with a pacemaker because there aren’t any medications that can reliably speed up your heart.
Treating fast heartbeats: For fast heartbeats, treatments may include vagal maneuvers, medications, cardioversion, and catheter ablation.
In some cases, irregular heartbeat is due to bad habits like drinking too much alcohol. Breaking the habit can cure the problem. Reducing stress, avoiding caffeine, improving your diet, and increasing the amount of exercise you do in a week can also reduce the frequency of experiencing arrhythmias. You should talk to your doctor first before beginning such changes. In other people, irregular heartbeats are a symptom of heart disease, and they won’t go away unless this underlying problem is addressed. Fortunately, many people can benefit from modern medical interventions, especially in the area of surgery and the insertion of special electrical devices.
- Bid adieu to smoke and alcohol.
- Cut down on stress and practice relaxation techniques such as yoga and meditation.
- Have medications only after being prescribed by the doctor. Self-medication is a strict no.
- Eat a well-balanced diet that is loaded with fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Stay physically fit by exercising daily. You can opt for walking, running, aerobics or swimming.
Different types of irregular heartbeat, especially when untreated, may lead to life-threatening conditions. These complications include:
- Heart failure
- Cardiac arrest
- Arrhythmias that get worse or cause other symptoms
Departments to consult for this condition
- Department of Cardiology