What Is Cardiac Arrhythmia?
A cardiac arrhythmia is any irregularity in the heart beat. This includes:
- Abnormally fast heartbeats (Tachycardia)
- Abnormally slow heartbeats (Bradycardia)
- Extra beats
- Skipped beats (Premature contraction)
Most people with an arrhythmia have nothing to worry about. For others, an arrhythmia may be a dangerous condition that requires medical treatment.
The most common type of arrhythmia is atrial fibrillation, a potential serious condition. It occurs when the heart's two small upper chambers (the atria) quiver instead of beating, allowing blood to pool inside and clot.
Some people are born with conditions that cause arrhythmias and others develop them with age or when scar tissue occurs after a heart attack or years of hypertension. As the population ages, they are becoming more common. Some arrhythmias may also be made worse by diet (especially caffeine), exertion or emotional issues.
Tell your doctor if you experience any of the following symptoms:
- Irregular heart beat or heart fluttering
- Heart palpitations or rapid thumping inside the chest
- Dizziness, sweating and chest pain or pressure
- Shortness of breath
- Excessive tiredness when exercising
Your doctor may be able to detect an arrhythmia by listening to the heart with a stethoscope. The following tests may also be ordered:
- Electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG) - This test, which involves attaching (with adhesive material) small electrodes to the arm, leg and chest to measure the rate and regularity of a heartbeat, may be taken while the patient is resting or after exercising on a treadmill.
- Holter monitoring - This test is essentially a portable electrocardiogram, which records changes in heart rhythm as a person goes about daily activities.
- Transtelephonic monitoring - The patient wears EKG electrodes for several days or several weeks, but instead of recording the heartbeat activity directly, the patient calls a monitoring station whenever he or she feels an arrhythmia.
- Cardiac catheterization - A thin flexible tube (catheter) is passed through an artery in the groin or arm into the coronary arteries to monitor blood pressure and blood flow.
Many arrhythmias require no treatment at all. Serious arrhythmias may be treated with one or more of the following options:
- Medications - to help regulate the heartbeat or to prevent complications such as stroke
- Cardioversion - an electric shock administered through a defibrillator to slow down or regulate a heartbeat (patient is anesthetized)
- Cardiac catheter ablation (Electrophysiology) - an electrophysiologist uses a special catheter to pinpoint and eliminate the abnormal electrical pathways in a patient’s heart.
- Automatic implantable defibrillator - a device surgically implanted inside the patient's chest, which monitors the heart's rhythm and provides an electric shock, if necessary, to slow down or regulate the heartbeat
- Artificial pacemaker - an electrical device placed under the skin that sends electrical signals to the heart to make the heart beat
- Surgery - to remove or repair heart tissue