Overview of Arrhythmias
Arrhythmias are irregular or abnormal heartbeats. Some people describe the feeling like a fluttering heart because it seems like your heart is moving too quickly or too slowly in your chest. Arrhythmias can range from completely harmless to life-threatening, so it is important to see your doctor if you think you may have a heart arrhythmia.
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Not everyone with arrhythmia has symptoms, but the most common symptom is a fluttering feeling in your chest. Other signs may include:
- Chest pain
- Difficulty exercising (easily winded)
- Shortness of breath
If you have chest pain or other symptoms of a heart attack, you should call 911 or get immediate medical attention.
Damage to the heart’s electrical system leads to arrhythmia. This damage causes the heart’s electrical signals to become rapid and disorganized. The following heart conditions can cause arrhythmias:
- Coronary artery disease
- Heart attack
- Congenital (present at birth) disabilities
- Heart surgery
- Heart valve disease
- High blood pressure
Additionally, conditions that are not directly related to the heart can cause arrhythmias. These include:
- Drinking too much caffeine or alcohol
- Drug abuse
- Medications, including cold and allergy drugs
- Over- or underactive thyroid gland
- Sleep apnea
- Stress or anxiety
There are several different types of arrhythmias categorized based on where they originate — in either the atria or ventricles —and by your heart rate. If your resting heartbeat is greater than 100 beats per minute, this is called tachycardia. If your heartbeat is slow, less than 60 beats per minute, it is called bradycardia.
Some people experience what feels like a skipped heartbeat. This is called a premature heartbeat. It is actually an extra beat and is generally not a serious problem. Premature heartbeats can either occur when resting or by stress, exercise, or stimulants. Caffeine and nicotine can cause premature heartbeat.
Premature beats that last for several years can lead to a weakened heart or a longer-lasting arrhythmia. People with heart disease should be especially aware of premature heartbeats.
A low heart rate is not necessarily cause for alarm. Many people who are physically fit have an efficient heart that is capable of pumping an adequate supply of blood at a lower rate. Blood pressure medication may also lower your heart rate. Types of bradycardias include:
- Conduction block occurs when there is a blockage near the AV node, which keeps electrical impulses from traveling along to the atria or ventricles. If the electrical signal is totally blocked, cells in the AV node and ventricles can make a steady heartbeat, but this beat is much slower. Often, blocks do not cause any signs or symptoms.
- Sick sinus syndrome happens in your sinus node, the area that sets the pace of your heart, and is common in older adults. If the sinus node is not sending correct impulses, your heart rate can vary between too fast and too slow. It is often caused by scarring that blocks the travel of these impulses.
Rapid heart rates, or tachycardias, that originate in the atria include:
- Atrial flutter. Atrial flutter is a fast heart rate from rapid and somewhat chaotic electrical impulses. This results in uncoordinated and weak atrial contractions. Atrial flutter can lead to severe complications, including stroke.
- Atrial fibrillation. Atrial fibrillation is similar to atrial flutter but is more disorganized and may not end unless it is treated. Similarly, it can lead to serious complications, including stroke.
- Supraventricular tachycardia. This type of arrhythmia originates above the ventricles and comes on and ends very suddenly.
Tachycardias can also originate in the ventricles. They include:
- Ventricular fibrillation. Most people with ventricular fibrillation have heart disease or trauma. It occurs when fast and chaotic electrical signals result in the ventricles moving ineffectively. They do not pump the necessary blood throughout the body as they are supposed to. This problem is serious and can be fatal if the heart’s normal rhythm isn’t restored within a few minutes.
- Ventricular tachycardia is a fast and regular heart rate originating with abnormal electrical signals in the ventricles. If you have an otherwise healthy heart, this may not cause any serious problems but could be considered a medical emergency if you have an otherwise damaged or weak heart.
Certain underlying conditions may increase your chances of developing an arrhythmia. Most of these conditions are directly related to your heart and heart health, though not all. Common heart conditions include:
- Abnormal valves
- Congenital heart disease
- Coronary artery disease
- High blood pressure
- History of a heart attack
- Narrowed arteries
- Previous heart surgery
Other conditions or substances that may put you at a higher risk of developing arrhythmia include:
- Alcohol, whichcan affect the electrical impulses in your heart
- Caffeine, nicotine, or other stimulants can cause your heart to beat faster
- Diabetes, especially if uncontrolled
- Drugs or supplements
- Electrolyte imbalance, because if your electrolyte levels are too high or low, it can affect your heart’s electrical impulses
- Obstructive sleep apnea
- Thyroid problems
Living a healthy lifestyle with your heart in mind will help prevent arrhythmia. Heart-healthy lifestyle actions include:
- Staying physically active
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Reducing stress
- Avoiding smoking
- Eating a healthy diet
- Limiting caffeine and alcohol
The information contained in this article is meant for educational purposes only and should not replace advice from your healthcare provider.