An arrhythmia is an irregular or abnormal heartbeat. While most arrhythmias are harmless, they can be an indicator of an underlying condition, such as heart disease or a lack of blood flow to the heart. Over 2 million Americans have an arrhythmia, and they are most common in older patients who are at a higher risk for heart disease.
Types of Arrhythmia
There are several different kinds of arrhythmia, which are classified by how the heart is beating. Atrial fibrillation is the most common and one of the most serious types of arrhythmia. It is classified by a very fast heartbeat that occurs when the electrical signal of the heart begins in a different part of the atrium than usual. Atrial fibrillation can eventually lead to stroke or heart failure as a result of blood clots that block the blood flow to the brain or heart.
Other types of arrhythmia include:
- Bradycardia - a slow heart rhythm
- Tachycardia - a fast heart rhythm
- Supraventricular - based in the atria
- Ventricular - based in the ventricles
- Bradyarrhythmia - caused by disease
Causes of Arrhythmia
The causes of an arrhythmia can vary depending on how the heart rate is affected. Some arrhythmias may be caused by underlying health conditions, such as:
- High blood pressure
- Coronary artery disease
- Heart failure
- Obstructive sleep apnea
- Electrolyte imbalance
- Alcohol consumption
- Stimulant use
- Congenital heart disease
Acute arrhythmias can be triggered by certain factors such as stress, smoking, alcohol, drug use, caffeine or nicotine.
Symptoms of Arrhythmia
Patients with an arrhythmia may experience the following symptoms:
- Fluttering in the chest, or palpitations
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
Symptoms vary depending on the type of arrhythmia. Some patients experience no symptoms at all. An arrhythmia may be hard to diagnose. Your doctor may assess your symptoms as well as your personal and family history, perform an EKG or chest X-ray to detect any abnormalities within the heart.
Treatment of Arrhythmia
Once an arrhythmia has been diagnosed, your doctor will develop a treatment plan that may include medication, medical procedures or surgery, depending on the severity and underlying cause of the arrhythmia.
Medication such as beta blockers, calcium channel blockers and digoxin can slow a fast heart rate, while other medications can help correct an abnormal heart rate.
Medical procedures such as an implantation of a pacemaker or a cardioverter-defibrillator that transmits small electrical signals to regulate the heart rate. This treatment is most often used when medication has failed.
Surgery is used, on occasion, to treat arrhythmia, often for cases caused by heart disease. Coronary artery bypass surgery may be performed to improve blood supply to the heart, while valve repair surgery may correct an arrhythmia as well.