If you put your hand on the left side of your chest and a hold it in place for a moment, you will feel the rhythmic lub-dub of your own heart beating merrily away in your chest.  Ideally, the heart should be between 60 and 100 times a minutes and should have a clear and steady rhythm.  When this does not happen, however, it can cause a variety of problems.

What is an Arrhythmia?

An arrhythmia happens when there are changes in the regular rate and rhythm of the heartbeat.  This happens when the electrical impulses which regulate the heartbeat don’t work properly and can cause the heart to beat too slowly, too fast or irregularly.

What are the Symptoms of an Arrhythmia?

Some people who have an arrhythmia are asymptomatic – this means that they do not have any signs or symptoms at all.  A lack of symptoms, however, does not mean that something isn’t wrong!

For those who do have symptoms, the most common ones are:

  • A “fluttering” feeling in the chest
  • A feeling like your heart is pound in your chest
  • A heartbeat that feels either too slow or too fast
  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Tightness, discomfort, pressure or pain in the chest
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Passing out

What Causes an Arrhythmia?

There are many things that can cause an arrhythmia – and some of the causes are more serious than others. They can include:

  • A current heart attack
  • Conditions that can change the way the heart is structured
  • Blocked arteries
  • Scarred heart tissue
  • Smoking
  • Use of caffeine or alcohol
  • Use of medications or street drugs
  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Some over-the-counter herbs and supplements
  • Electrical shock

What are the Different Kinds of Arrhythmias?

There are actually many different kinds of arrhythmias, including the following:

  • Tachycardia, where the heart beats more than 100 times per minutes
  • Bradycardia, where it beats less than 60 times per minute
  • Atrial fibrillation, where the upper chambers of the heart (called atria) beat rapidly and weakly
  • Atrial flutter, where the heart’s upper chambers still beat abnormally, but are more organized and stronger than in atrial fibrillation
  • Ventricular tachycardia, the rapid, weak beats of the lower chambers of the heart, called the ventricles
  • Conduction block, where the electrical impulses which regulate the heartbeat get blocked
  • Premature heartbeat, or a “skipped beat”; many people have this condition and it is not usually considered serious unless it triggers a longer-lasting kind of arrhythmia

Who is at Risk for Arrhythmias?

There are several things that can put someone at risk for an arrhythmia, including the following:

  • Patients with other kinds of heart conditions such as coronary artery disease, which affects the vessels that supply the heart with blood
  • People with heart conditions that they are born with, called congenital heart disease
  • People with high blood pressure that isn’t treated
  • Those with thyroid disease
  • DiabetIcs
  • People taking certain medications, herbs or supplements
  • People who use too much caffeine, alcohol or illegal drugs
  • People with electrolyte imbalances, such as having too much or not enough potassium, sodium, calcium or magnesium in the body

Why are Arrhythmias Serious?

The main reason that doctors take arrhythmias so seriously is that they can lead to other significant heart problems, including:

  • Heart failure, where the muscles in the heart are too weak to pump blood effectively through the body on their own
  • Stroke, where blood clots get caught in the vessels that bring blood to the brain and essentially starve the brain of oxygen

What Do Doctors Test for Arrhythmias?

The good news is that there are several ways that doctors can test for this condition; some of the most common ways include:

  • ECG, where sensors can detect if there if anything abnormal about the electrical impulses that regulate the heartbeat
  • Holter monitor, which a patient puts on and might where for a few hours to a few days that gives the doctor long-term ECG readings to identify the problem
  • Event monitor, which patient will place on themselves while they are having symptoms so that the doctor can get more information about the activity of the heart during these events
  • Echocardiogram, where doctors use sound waves to get images of the heart so they can study its structure, size and how well it is functioning
  • Stress test, where patients will walk on a treadmill or take medication to stimulate that heart so that doctors can see how the heart reacts to stress

How Do Doctors Treat Arrhythmias?

The good news is that, when it comes to treating arrhythmias, doctors and patients have a lot of options to choose from. And if the arrhythmia is mild and not causing the patient any problems, the first course of treatment might be just to monitor the patient to see if the problem gets worse.  Other treatment options include:

  • Medications which regulate the heartbeat and make it stronger
  • Vagal maneuvers such as holding the breath or splashing cold water on the face which stimulate the vagal nerves and slow down the heartbeat
  • Cardioversion, where the doctor uses an electric paddle to shock the heart back into a normal rhythm
  • Pacemakers, which are small devices implanted near the heart which help to regulate the heartbeat
  • Surgery to repair the heart if needed

What Can People Do at Home to Feel Better?

Apart from the medical treatments listed above, there are things that people can do at home to help feel better as well. These include:

  • A heart-healthy diet with lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and fish
  • Regular exercise
  • Not smoking – or quitting smoking if it is already a habit
  • Losing weight if needed
  • Keeping blood pressure and cholesterol at a healthy level
  • Drinking alcohol only in moderation
  • Regular visits to the doctor
  • Practices like yoga, tai chi, deep breathing and other techniques that relieve stress
  • Acupuncture, a medical practice developed in China which uses tiny, thin needles inserted into different points of the body to help people with various medical problems, include irregular heartbeats

So while some people can have very mild arrhythmias that do not lead to any problems and which can just be monitored by the doctor, other people have this condition more severely and sometimes substantial medical treatment is needed to make them feel better. The good news is that, with treatment, people can and do often feel much better and can lead happy, healthy lives, especially if they take care of themselves at home as well!