Your heart typically beats with a specific rhythm. Arrhythmia is a problem with that rhythm, whether it beats too quickly, too slowly, or irregularly. It's a common occurrence that is usually harmless, but at times it can cause serious problems.
Here's what you need to know about arrhythmia, including when to see a doctor.
What Is Arrhythmia? Causes and Symptoms
Electric pulses in your body control the heartbeat, and it's when these pulses get out of sync that arrhythmia occurs. When the heart is out of rhythm, it doesn't pump blood efficiently, which can hurt the heart and affect the oxygenation of organs throughout the body. The American Heart Association explains that an arrhythmia increases your risk of heart attack or cardiac arrest.
The symptoms of arrhythmia include:
- A heartbeat that is too fast or too slow
- Skipped beats
- Chest pain
- Feeling short of breath
- Feeling lightheaded or like you're going to faint
Risk Factors for Arrhythmia
The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute describes the risk factors for arrhythmia, including:
- Older age
- Heart conditions that have damaged the heart, such as a prior heart attack, heart failure, or a congenital heart defect
- High blood pressure
- Sleep apnea
- Infections that reach the heart
- Thyroid imbalance
- Prescription drug use
- Recreational drug use, from caffeine and nicotine to cocaine
- Chemical imbalance in the bloodstream
Many people have arrhythmias that don't need medical intervention. In cases where the arrhythmia needs treatment, prescription drugs are often sufficient to address the issue. In more extreme cases, devices such as a pacemaker or implantable cardioverter defibrillator may be surgically implanted to maintain the rhythm of the heart. There are also procedures such as ablation to identify and destroy the cells in the heart that cause the irregular heartbeats.
When to See a Doctor
If you have any of the symptoms of arrhythmia, or have concerns about your heart, the first step is to make an appointment to see your doctor. If you have chest pains, shortness of breath, or fainting, your symptoms are considered an emergency and you need immediate medical attention.
Your doctor will likely order several tests to be performed at the medical facility, such as an echocardiogram, which is a painless procedure that uses sound. They may also order a stress test, which monitors your heart while you exercise. There are also different types of monitors that your doctor may send home with you to monitor your heart as you go about your day.
If you are concerned that you are at risk of developing arrhythmia, discuss it with your doctor. You can start by addressing your risk factors. You can make many changes at home, such as eating a heart-healthy diet, dialing back your sodium intake, monitoring your blood sugar if you have diabetes, and reducing or eliminating your use of caffeine and nicotine. While you may not have control over all risk factors, such as age, making healthy choices will help you mitigate your risk of arrhythmia and improve your health overall.