An arrhythmia occurs whenever the heartbeat is irregular. This can mean the heart beats too quickly, which is called tachycardia, or too slowly, which is called bradycardia. Any irregular rhythms, where the heartbeat alternates between too fast and too slow, are also referred to as heart arrhythmias.
Changes in heartbeat may happen if the nerve cells in the heart don’t transmit signals properly, or the electrical signal that controls the heart muscle doesn’t travel normally through the heart.
Many heart arrhythmias are temporary and don’t cause harm. Some may be present from birth. Any change in a heartbeat is a cause for visiting your doctor to make sure there are no underlying issues. Some heart arrhythmias are indicative of damage to the heart or problems with blocked arteries or high blood pressure.
Heart arrhythmias may also be caused by drug or alcohol abuse, an overactive or under-active thyroid gland, or some medications. Other types of irregular heartbeats may be genetic.
Signs of irregular heartbeat include fluttering in your chest, feeling that your heart is racing or beating too slowly, shortness of breath, feeling faint or lightheaded, sweating or having chest pain.
Many of these symptoms are also present during the initial stages of a heart attack. If you experience symptoms you have never felt before, seek emergency medical help.
On the other hand, some cases of heart arrhythmias are so subtle that they are only detected by a doctor during a routine exam. Your doctor will let you know whether a minor heart arrhythmia should be monitored or treated.
Heart arrhythmia can be caused by several different things, including high blood pressure, genetics, stress, smoking, coronary artery disease (blocked arteries in the heart), drug abuse, heart attack, overactive thyroid gland, scarring of the heart tissue from previous heart attack, certain over-the-counter medications, underactive thyroid gland, drinking too much alcohol or caffeine, and changes to the structure of your heart (as in cardiomyopathy).
Known risk factors for heart arrhythmia include congenital heart disease (being born with an abnormal heart), electrolyte imbalance, nicotine use, caffeine consumption, obstructive sleep apnea, diabetes, previous heart surgery, and other heart problems, like narrowed heart arteries. Other risk factors include having a family history of heart arrhythmia, advancing age, high cholesterol, a high-fat diet, and certain dietary supplements or herbal remedies.
Medications can help control the heart beat and slow it down if it is too fast. However, there are no reliable drugs that can make slow heart beats speed up.
If you have a slow heart rate, you may be a candidate for a pacemaker, which is a small device implanted into your chest. The pacemaker senses an irregular heart beat and sends out electrical signals to prompt the heart into the proper rhythm.
Some patients have success with vagal maneuvers, or exercises that stimulate the vagal nerve. This stimulation can often make the heart’s electrical signals return to normal. Examples of vagal maneuvers include coughing or holding your breath.
When heart arrhythmias cannot be treated any other way, surgery may be required. A surgeon can make tiny cuts in the atria, which help prevent improper electrical signals from being sent.
Prevent heart arrhythmia by living a heart-healthy lifestyle. Taking certain measures can help reduce your risk of a heart arrhythmia. Eating a heart-healthy diet full of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean meats like fish, and getting the proper iron and protein servings is crucial to your heart health. Increase the amount of physical activity you do – make sure you’re getting at least 30 minutes per day of exercise at least four times per week. This will help you to maintain a healthy weight – another important factor when it comes to avoiding heart arrhythmia.
Avoiding unnecessary stress or anxiety, having regular physical examinations, and limiting your intake of caffeine and alcohol can greatly reduce your risk of heart arrhythmia.
If you’ve got a heart arrhythmia already, you can take steps to prevent it from getting worse. For example, monitoring your condition is the best approach. Learn as much as you can about heart arrhythmia and understand the importance of following the treatment plan provided by your doctor. If you experience any new symptoms, report them to your doctor immediately. Take any prescribed medications to avoid possible complications – such as stroke and heart failure.