Arrhythmia: Causes, symptoms, types, and treatment

An arrhythmia describes an irregular heartbeat – the heart may beat too fast, too slowly, too early, or irregularly.

Arrhythmias occur when the electrical signals to the heart that coordinate heartbeats are not working properly. For instance, some people experience irregular heartbeats, which may feel like a racing heart or fluttering.

Many heart arrhythmias are harmless; however, if they are particularly abnormal, or result from a weak or damaged heart, arrhythmias can cause serious and even potentially fatal symptoms.

Fast facts on arrhythmias:

Some arrhythmias have no associated symptoms.

Symptoms of arrhythmia often include dizziness, breathlessness, and palpitations.

The causes of arrhythmia are varied and include diabetes, mental stress, and smoking.

A slow heartbeat is not always a sign of illness.

What is arrhythmia?

Heart arrhythmia, also known as irregular heartbeat or cardiac dysrhythmia, is a group of conditions where the heartbeat is irregular, too slow, or too fast.

Arrhythmias are broken down into:

Slow heartbeat: bradycardia.

Fast heartbeat: tachycardia.

Irregular heartbeat: flutter or fibrillation.

Early heartbeat: premature contraction.

Most arrhythmias are not serious, but some can predispose the individual to stroke or cardiac arrest.

Causes of arrhythmia?

woman drinking whiskey
Alcohol abuse can be a cause of arrhythmia, as can drug abuse.

Any interruption to the electrical impulses that cause the heart to contract can result in arrhythmia.

For a person with a healthy heart, they should have a heart rate of between 60-100 beats per minute when resting.

The more fit a person is, the lower their resting heart rate.

Olympic athletes, for example, will usually have a resting heart rate of under 60 beats per minute because their hearts are very efficient.

A number of factors can cause the heart to work incorrectly, they include:

alcohol abuse

diabetes

drug abuse

excessive coffee consumption

heart disease like congestive heart failure

hypertension (high blood pressure)

hyperthyroidism (an overactive thyroid gland)

mental stress

scarring of the heart, often the result of a heart attack

smoking

some dietary supplements

some herbal treatments

some medications

structural changes of the heart

A healthy person will hardly ever suffer from long-term arrhythmia unless they have an external trigger, such as drug abuse or an electric shock. If there is an underlying problem, however, the electrical impulses may not be able to travel through the heart correctly, increasing the likelihood of arrhythmia.

arrhythmia on an electrocardiogram
Arrhythmia, or abnormal heart rate, has a variety of causes.

Some patients have no symptoms, but a doctor might detect an arrhythmia during a routine examination or on an EKG.

Even if a patient notices symptoms, it does not necessarily mean there is a serious problem; for instance, some patients with life-threatening arrhythmias may have no symptoms while others with symptoms may not have a serious problem.

Symptoms depend on the type of arrhythmia; we will explain the most common below:

Symptoms of tachycardia

Tachycardia is when the heart beats quicker than normal; symptoms include:

breathlessness (dyspnea)

dizziness

syncope (fainting, or nearly fainting)

fluttering in the chest

chest pain

lightheadedness

sudden weakness

Symptoms of bradycardia

Bradycardia is when the heart beats slower than normal; symptoms include:

angina (chest pain)

trouble concentrating

confusion

difficulties when exercising

dizziness

fatigue (tiredness)

lightheadedness

palpitations

shortness of breath

syncope (fainting or nearly fainting)

diaphoresis, or sweating

Symptoms of atrial fibrillation

Atrial fibrillation is when the upper chambers of the heart beat in an irregular pattern and out of synchrony with the lower chambers. Symptoms often develop rapidly, although sometimes, there are no symptoms:

angina (chest pain)

breathlessness (dyspnea)

dizziness

palpitations

syncope (fainting, or nearly fainting)

weakness

Treatments for arrhythmia

Treatment for arrhythmia is only required if the condition is putting the patient at risk of a more serious arrhythmia or a complication, or if the symptoms are very severe.

Treatments for bradycardia

If bradycardia is caused by an underlying condition, that condition needs to be treated first. If no underlying problem is found, the doctor may advise implanting a pacemaker.

A pacemaker is a small device that is placed under the skin of the chest or abdomen to help control abnormal heart rhythms. Pacemakers use electrical pulses to prompt the heart to beat at a normal minimum rate.

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