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
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 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.
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.
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.
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
- feeling faint, dizzy, or
- shortness of breath
- irregular pulse or heart
- chest pain
- pale skin
What Causes Abnormal Heart Rhythms?
A number of things may
cause an abnormal heartbeat, including high blood pressure. Other common causes
Coronary Heart Disease
This serious heart problem occurs when cholesterol and other deposits
block the coronary arteries.
Some medications or
substances may cause your heart rate to change. These include:
- amphetamines, which are drugs that stimulate the brain
- beta blockers, which are used to reduce high blood pressure
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
- low potassium and other
- abnormalities of the
- other health conditions
What Are the Risk Factors for Abnormal Heart Rhythms?
The risks for arrhythmia
- previous heart
conditions, or a family history of heart conditions
- 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
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
- Echocardiogram (EKG or ECG): Also known as a cardiac
echo, this test uses sound waves to take pictures of your heart.
- Holter monitor:
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:
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.
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.