An irregular heartbeat (also known as an arrhythmia) is any of a heterogeneous and large group of conditions in which there is an abnormal level of electrical activity in the heart. The heartbeat may be too slow (called bradycardia) or too fast (called tachycardia). It can occur in the lower chambers of the heart (ventricles) or upper chambers of the heart (atria). Most irregular heartbeats are not a life-threatening issue, although some are capable of causing a person to suffer from cardiac arrest. In fact, it can be a common cause of death when someone is heading to a hospital for treatment. There are many different types including Premature Ventricular Contractions (among the most common arrhythmias and occur in people with or without heart disease), Ventricular fibrillation (disorganized, erratic firing of impulses from the ventricles – medical emergency), Heart block (a complete block or delay of the electrical impulse as is travels to the ventricles, causing the heart to beat more slowly), and Bradyarrhythmias (slow heart rhythms).
An irregular heartbeat can be silent and not cause any symptoms, and people can live their entire lives without experiencing any symptoms. A physician can identify an irregular heartbeat during a physical exam through an electrocardiogram or by simply taking your pulse. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, symptoms may involve palpitations (a feeling of skipped heart beats), pounding in your chest, fainting, dizziness, shortness of breath, feeling light-headed, fatigue, chest discomfort, and general weakness. Patients may also suffer a loss of consciousness and mental confusion.
An irregular heartbeat may be caused by many different factors, including electrolyte imbalances in your blood (such as potassium or sodium), coronary artery disease; injury from a heart attack; changes in your heart muscles; and during the healing process post surgery. It may occur in normal hearts. A slow or fast heart rate does not necessarily mean your heart rhythm is abnormal. Heart rate is also related to activity, anxiety, medications, or other natural causes. An irregular heartbeat may be caused by disorders that damage the heart and its valves, such as rheumatic fever, myocarditis, and endocarditis, or disorders of the thyroid gland. Some drugs, including stimulants, digitalis, and diuretics may also cause an irregular heartbeat, as well as overdoses of anti-depressants or recreational drugs. The risk of an irregular heartbeat increases with smoking, advancing age, kidney disease, high blood pressure, general stress, and an excess consumption of alcohol or caffeine.
You can help reduce your risk for irregular heartbeat by engaging in regular physical activity, avoiding excessive amounts of caffeine and alcohol, staying away from illegal drugs, and quitting smoking. You may also want to stay away from stimulants used in cold and cough medications. These lifestyle changes are the best way to help prevent an irregular heartbeat from occurring, and are good for your heart and overall health in general. For people who suffer from an irregular heartbeat, there are numerous treatment options available to them.
A variety of drugs are available to help treat an irregular heartbeat. Antiarrhythmic drugs help control heart rate and include beta-blockers.
Antiplatelet and therapy drugs decrease the threat of blood clots. In non-emergency situations, an electric shock may be administered to correct an irregular heartbeat. You receive anesthesia and then an electrical shock which synchronizes the heart and helps the normal rhythm restart. If the physician is able to pinpoint certain regions of the heart that are causing the abnormal rhythm, then a catheter ablation (an outpatient procedure) can be performed. This procedure uses radio wave energy to destroy these areas and removes damaged heart tissue. For people who have a dangerously slow heartbeat, a pacemaker may be implanted in the chest. A pacemaker is a small device that works to supply regular electrical triggers into the heart. This helps it speed up when it beats too slowly. In some rare cases, heart surgery may be needed to correct heart disease that could be causing the irregular heartbeat.