An arrhythmia of the heart (uh-RITH-me-uh) is an irregular heartbeat. When the electrical signals that coordinate the heart's beats fail to function properly, heart rhythm problems (heart arrhythmias) occur. Because of the faulty signaling, the heart beats too quickly (tachycardia), too slowly (bradycardia), or irregularly.
Heart arrhythmias, which can feel like a fluttering or racing heart, are usually harmless. Some heart arrhythmias, on the other hand, can cause bothersome, even life-threatening, signs and symptoms.
However, having a fast or slow heart rate is not always abnormal. For example, during exercise, the heart rate may increase, while during sleep, it may decrease.
Medication, catheter procedures, implanted devices, or surgery may be used to control or eliminate fast, slow, or irregular heartbeats. A heart-healthy lifestyle can help prevent heart damage, which can lead to arrhythmias.
Heart arrhythmias are classified based on the rate at which the heart beats. As an example:
Heart arrhythmias may not produce any symptoms. When examining you for another reason, a doctor may notice the irregular heartbeat.
Understanding the cause of heart arrhythmias may be aided by understanding how the heart normally functions.
The heart has four chambers: two upper chambers (atria) and two lower chambers (ventricles) (ventricles).
A natural pacemaker (the sinus node) in the right upper chamber normally controls the heart's rhythm (atrium). The sinus node generates the electrical signals that initiate each heartbeat. These electrical signals travel across the atria, contracting the heart muscles and pumping blood into the ventricles.
The following factors may increase the risk of heart arrhythmias:
Vary according to the type of arrhythmia. Heart arrhythmia complications can include stroke,
sudden death, and heart failure.
Arrhythmias of the heart are linked to an increased risk of blood clots. If a clot escapes from the heart, it can travel to the brain and cause a stroke. Blood thinners can reduce the risk of stroke in people who have atrial fibrillation or other arrhythmias. Your doctor will determine whether or not a blood-thinning medication is appropriate for you.
Lifestyle changes to lower the risk of heart disease may aid in the prevention of heart arrhythmias. A heart-healthy way of life includes:
A physical exam and questions about your medical history and symptoms are usually used to diagnose a heart arrhythmia. A variety of tests may be performed to confirm an irregular heartbeat and to look for conditions that can cause arrhythmias, such as heart disease or thyroid disease.
The following tests may be used to diagnose heart arrhythmias:
Treatment for heart arrhythmias differs depending on whether you have a fast (tachycardia) or slow heartbeat (bradycardia). Some arrhythmias of the heart do not require treatment. Your doctor may advise you to have regular checkups to monitor your condition.
Treatment for heart arrhythmia is usually only required if the irregular heartbeat is causing significant symptoms or if the condition puts you at risk of developing more serious heart problems. Medication, therapies such as vagal manoeuvres, cardioversion, catheter procedures, or heart surgery may be used to treat heart arrhythmias.
Medications the medications used to treat heart arrhythmias vary according to the type of arrhythmia and the potential complications.
For example, most people with tachycardia are prescribed drugs to control their heart rate and restore a normal heart rhythm.
Blood thinners may be prescribed if you have atrial fibrillation to prevent blood clots. To reduce the risk of complications, it is critical to take the medications exactly as prescribed by your doctor.
To stop the irregular heartbeat, vagal manoeuvres and cardioversion are used as treatments for heart arrhythmias.
Vagal manoeuvres your doctor may recommend this therapy if you have a very fast heartbeat due to supraventricular tachycardia. Vagal manoeuvres affect the nervous system (vagus nerves) that controls your heartbeat, causing your heart rate to slow. You may be able to stop an arrhythmia by, for example, holding your breath and straining, dipping your face in ice water, or coughing. Vagal manoeuvres are not effective for all types of arrhythmias.
Cardioversion. This method of resetting the heart rhythm can be accomplished through medication or through surgery. If you have a certain type of arrhythmia, such as atrial fibrillation, your doctor may recommend this treatment.