What Is an Arrhythmia?
An arrhythmia is an uneven heartbeat. It means your heart is out of its usual rhythm.
It may feel like your heart skipped a beat, added a beat, or is “fluttering.” It might feel like it’s beating too fast (which doctors call tachycardia) or too slow (called bradycardia). Or you might not notice anything.
Arrhythmias can be an emergency, or they could be harmless. If you feel something unusual happening with your heartbeat, get medical help right away so doctors can find out why it’s happening and what you need to do about it.
Symptoms of Arrhythmias
An arrhythmia can be silent, meaning you don’t notice any symptoms. Your doctor may spot an uneven heartbeat during a physical exam.
If you have symptoms, they may include:
You could have an arrhythmia even if your heart is healthy. Or it could happen because of:
Arrhythmia Risk Factors
Things that may make you more likely to have an arrhythmia include your:
Types of Arrhythmias
Arrhythmias are divided up by where they happen. If they start in the ventricles, or lower chambers of your heart, they’re called ventricular. When they begin in the atria, or upper chambers, they’re called supraventricular.
Doctors also group them by how they affect your resting heart rate. Bradycardia is a heart rate of fewer than 60 beats per minute. Tachycardia is more than 100 beats per minute.
Supraventricular arrhythmias include:
Ventricular arrhythmias include:
Another type of arrhythmia, bradyarrhythmia, is a slow rhythm because of disease in your heart’s electrical system or because of medication. It may make you pass out or feel like you will. Types of bradyarrhythmia include:
Diagnosis of Arrhythmias
To diagnose an arrhythmia or find its cause, doctors use tests including:
Treatment of Arrhythmias
Treatment will depend on what type of arrhythmia you have. Your doctor may recommend one or more of these.
Medicines that treat uneven heart rhythms include:
These techniques trigger your body to relax by affecting your vagus nerve, which helps control your heart rate. Your doctor might tell you to:
If drugs can’t control an uneven heart rhythm (such as atrial fibrillation), you might need cardioversion. For this, doctors put you to sleep and then send an electrical shock to your chest wall to trigger your heart’s regular rhythm.
This device sends small electrical impulses to your heart muscle to keep a safe heart rate. It includes a pulse generator, which houses the battery and a tiny computer, and wires that send impulses to the heart muscle.
Implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD)
Doctors mainly use ICDs to treat ventricular tachycardia and ventricular fibrillation, two life-threatening heart rhythms.
The ICD constantly tracks your heart rhythm. When it detects a very fast, unusual rhythm, it delivers an electric shock to the heart muscle to make it beat in a regular rhythm again. It can do this in one of several ways:
Think of this procedure as rewiring to fix an electrical problem in your heart.
Your doctor will insert a catheter through your leg. It delivers high-frequency electrical energy to a small area inside your heart that causes the unusual rhythm. This energy “disconnects” the pathway of the unusual rhythm.
Doctors use ablation to treat most PSVTs, atrial flutter, atrial fibrillation, and some atrial and ventricular tachycardias.
Heart surgery for arrhythmias
The maze procedure is a type of surgery to correct atrial fibrillation. Your surgeon makes a series, or “maze,” of cuts in your heart’s upper chambers. The goal is to keep your heart’s electrical impulses only on certain pathways. Some people need a pacemaker afterward.
Your doctor might recommend other procedures, such as a coronary bypass, to treat other forms of heart disease.
Complications of Arrhythmias
Without treatment, an uneven heart rhythm could cause dangerous problems such as:
You can’t always prevent arrhythmias. Regular checkups with your doctor can help keep you from having more heart rhythm problems. Be sure they know all of the medications you’re taking. Some cold and cough medicines can trigger an arrhythmia, so talk to your doctor before using them.
They may also recommend some lifestyle changes: