What causes abnormal heart rhythms? 71 possible conditions
An abnormal heart rhythm (arrhythmia) is a change in the heart's beating pattern. There are many different types with different causes and effe...

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An abnormal heart rhythm is when your heart beats too fast, slow, or irregularly. This is also called an arrhythmia. Within the heart is a complex system of valves, nodes, and chambers that control how and when the blood is pumped. If the functions of this vital system are disrupted, damaged, or compromised, it can change the pattern with which your heart beats. Arrhythmias can cause no symptoms or you may feel discomfort, fluttering, pain, or pounding in your chest.

Not all arrhythmias are life threatening or cause health complications. To be on the safe side, though, any abnormal heart rhythm should be reported to your doctor.

The Types of Abnormal Heart Rhythms

The most common types of abnormal heart rhythms are:

Tachycardia

Tachycardia means that your heart is beating too fast. For example, a normal heart beats 60-100 times per minute in adults. Tachycardia is any heart rate over 100 beats per minute (BPM). There are three sub-types of tachycardia:

  • Supraventricular tachycardia occurs in the upper chambers of your heart known as the atria.
  • Ventricular tachycardia occurs in the lower chambers known as the ventricles.
  • Sinus tachycardia is a normal increase in the heart rate that may occur when you’re sick or excited. With sinus tachycardia, your heartbeat returns to normal once you get better or calm down.

Atrial Fibrillation (AF)

This disorganized heart rhythm occurs in the upper chambers of the heart. It’s the most common arrhythmia. Atrial fibrillation occurs when many unstable electrical impulses misfire, or quiver out of control. AF causes the heart rate to increase and become erratic. It can cause your heart rate to increase to 100-200 BPM, which is a lot faster than the normal 60-100 BPM.

Atrial Flutter (AFL)

An atrial flutter typically occurs in the right atrium, which is one of the two upper chambers of the heart. However, it may occur in the left atrium as well. The condition is caused by a single electrical impulse that travels rapidly in the affected atrium. This often causes a fast heart rate as well, but it’s a more regular rhythm.

Bradycardia

If you’re bradycardic, it means you have a slow heart rate (less than 60 BPM). Bradycardia generally occurs when the electrical signals traveling from the atria to the ventricles become disrupted. Some athletes have slower heart rates because they are in excellent physical condition.

Ventricular Fibrillation (VF)

This type of abnormal rhythm can stop the heart from beating and cause cardiac arrest. It occurs in the ventricles, where blood is pumped out of your heart to the body and brain. VF is a serious condition that may cause death if it’s not immediately treated.

Premature Contractions

With most premature contractions, the heart appears to skip a beat when the pulse is taken in the wrist or chest. The skipped beat is so faint or weak that it’s not heard or felt.

Other types of premature contractions include extra beats and early beats. All three types may occur in the upper or lower heart chambers.

What Are the Symptoms of Abnormal Heart Rhythms?

If you have an abnormal heart rhythm you may experience some or all of these symptoms:

  • feeling faint, dizzy, or light-headed
  • shortness of breath
  • irregular pulse or heart palpitations
  • chest pain
  • pale skin
  • sweating

What Causes Abnormal Heart Rhythms?

A number of things may cause an abnormal heartbeat, including high blood pressure. Other common causes are:

Coronary Heart Disease

This serious heart problem occurs when cholesterol and other deposits block the coronary arteries.

Medications

Some medications or substances may cause your heart rate to change. These include:

  • caffeine
  • amphetamines, which are drugs that stimulate the brain
  • beta blockers, which are used to reduce high blood pressure

Other Causes

A number of other factors can also cause alterations in your heart’s rhythm. These include:

  • changes in your heart’s muscle after illness or injury
  • healing after heart surgery
  • low potassium and other electrolytes
  • abnormalities of the heart
  • other health conditions

What Are the Risk Factors for Abnormal Heart Rhythms?

The risks for arrhythmia include:

  • smoking
  • previous heart conditions, or a family history of heart conditions
  • diabetes
  • stress
  • being overweight
  • living a sedentary lifestyle, for example, not exercising
  • a diet high in fats, cholesterol, and other unhealthy foods
  • high blood pressure or other health problems

Diagnosing Abnormal Heart Rhythms

Your doctor will perform a physical examination, which will include using a stethoscope to listen to your heart. They may also use an EKG machine to examine the electrical impulses of your heart. This will help them determine whether your heart rhythm is abnormal and identify the cause.

Other tools that can be used to diagnose an arrhythmia include:

  • Echocardiogram (EKG or ECG): Also known as a cardiac echo, this test uses sound waves to take pictures of your heart.
  • Holter monitor: This monitor is worn for at least 24 hours while you go about your normal activities. It allows your doctor to track changes in your heart’s rhythm throughout the day.
  • Stress test: For this test, your doctor will make you walk or jog on a treadmill to see how exercise affects your heart.

Treating Abnormal Heart Rhythms

The treatment for an arrhythmia depends on its cause. You may need to make lifestyle changes, like increasing your activity level or changing your diet, for example limiting your caffeine intake. If you smoke, your doctor will help you stop smoking. You might also require medication to control your abnormal heartbeat.

For serious abnormalities that don’t go away with behavioral changes or medication, your doctor can:

  • implant a pacemaker
  • perform surgery to correct an abnormality
  • try other procedures to correct your heart’s rhythm

Outlook: What Should I Expect in the Long Term?

Although arrhythmia can be quite serious, many cases of arrhythmia can be controlled with treatment. Along with treatment, your doctor will want to monitor your condition with regular check-ups.

Prevention

Once your arrhythmia is under control, your doctor will discuss ways to keep it from coming back. In general, healthy lifestyle choices can go a long way toward helping you control your condition. Your doctor will probably recommend improving your diet, exercising more, and trying to end other dangerous behaviors, such as smoking.

Written by: Brindles Lee Macon and Elizabeth Boskey, PhD
Edited by:
Medically Reviewed by: [Ljava.lang.Object;@6d0efaa8
Published: Jul 16, 2012
Published By: Healthline Networks, Inc.
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