A normal resting heart beats about 60 to 100 times a minute. Heart rhythm problems or medically referred to as arrhythmia is a condition where the heartbeat of a person is unbalanced – implying it is either too fast or slow or too early or irregular. Arrhythmias occur when the electrical impulses that coordinate the heartbeats malfunction, causing racing heartbeats or fluttering. Many arrhythmias are harmless and do not cause any problems unless these episodes occur frequently or for a long period of time or are abnormal and caused by a weak heart – such cases require serious medical attention and could also be fatal.
Types of Arrhythmias
Premature Atrial Contractions: Extra beats originating early in the upper chambers of the heart cause this type of irregularity in a heartbeat, which is often harmless.
Premature Ventricular Contractions: Often referred to as skipped heartbeat and one of the most common types of arrhythmias experienced by people. This can happen to people with or without heart problems.
Atrial Fibrillation: In this condition, the atrial chambers beat irregularly – mostly too fast. This is a very common type of arrhythmia and usually happens to people of an older age.
Atrial Flutter: This condition occurs when the irregularity in a heartbeat is from a particular area of the heart, because of that area of the atrium not functioning properly. Hence, this arrhythmia has a consistent pattern instead of random quivers like fibrillation. This can be a serious condition and would need medical help.
Supraventricular Tachycardia (SVT): In this type, the patient experiences abnormally racing heartbeats (approximately 160-200 per minute) that can last for minutes or hours. This begins and ends abruptly.
Accessory Pathway Tachycardia: A condition where one experiences rapid heart rate because of an abnormal connection between the lower and upper chambers of the heart.
Ventricular Tachycardia: Abnormality in the functioning of electrical impulses in the ventricles (lower chambers of the heart) can cause irregular, fast heartbeats usually because of scars or injuries from a previous heart attack. This problem does not let the heart pump enough blood in the body, causing a lot of problems.
Ventricular Fibrillation: In this condition, the lower chambers of the heart quiver, unable to pump blood due to improper contractions leading to erratic heartbeats. This is a case of a medical emergency.
Long QT Syndrome: When the heart muscles take longer than usual to contract and recover, this causes an absence of a heartbeat for a long time resulting in a life-threatening form of ventricular tachycardia that can cause sudden death.
Brady arrhythmias: This condition occurs when the person experiences slow heartbeats than usual due to a problem in the heart’s conduction system such as a heart block or a sinus node dysfunction.
As mentioned, most arrhythmias are momentary; however serious cases can put a person to a risk of stroke or a cardiac arrest.
Causes of Arrhythmia
Arrhythmias occur when the electrical impulses of the heart are disturbed, leading to improper functioning of the heart. This disturbance in the functioning of the heart can be caused due to several factors such as:
- Excessive alcohol
- Substance abuse
- Excessive consumption of caffeine
- Heart diseases
- High blood pressure
- Overactive or underactive thyroid gland
- Scarring of the heart tissue (from a previous heart attack)
- Dietary supplements
- Certain medications and treatment
- Changes in the heart’s structure
- Heart attack
- Blockage in the arteries
- Obstructive sleep apnea
- Imbalance of electrolytes in the blood
- Injury from a heart attack
The heartbeat of a healthy person does not fluctuate often and also resumes normal rate within seconds; hence, a healthy person is very unlikely to experience long-term arrhythmias unless it is triggered by an external factor such as drugs, alcohol, stress, etc.
Symptoms of Arrhythmia
Some arrhythmia may be really short-lived and show no symptoms, while others may have loud symptoms that must be taken into consideration. Some common arrhythmia symptoms include:
- Abnormal heartbeat (fast, slow, missing, early)
- Loss of consciousness
- Acute chest pain
- Difficulty in conduction normal every day activities
- Difficulty during exercise
- Excessive sweating
- Confusion, troubled mind
In many cases, arrhythmias can go unnoticed and may be detected upon examination by a doctor through an EKG.
Complications from Arrhythmia
Most arrhythmia last for a very short period of time and often resolve on their own, but in cases where the abnormality is experienced consistently or intensely, immediate medical help must be taken. Severe arrhythmia cases can lead to complications such as:
Stroke: When the heart’s electrical impulses are not coordinated, it is unable to pump blood effectively causing blood clots. These blood clots when break loose can travel to the brain blocking blood flow and resulting in a stroke, which can be fatal.
Heart Failure: A heart can fail to function if it is been malfunctioning – beating too fast or too slow – for a prolonged period of time. Heart failure can result in death, provided immediate medical attention is not received.
Prevention from Arrhythmia
It is possible to prevent arrhythmia provided you take proper care of the heart by adopting a healthy lifestyle and diet.
Some of the preventive measures that work are:
- A healthy diet enriched with minerals, vitamins, fibres, etc.
- Physical activity of at least 30 minutes
- Quitting smoking
- Limited or no alcohol
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Avoiding caffeine
- Reducing stress
- Avoid harmful medications including over-the-counter medications for cold, flu, cough, etc.
Further, a critical factor to prevent complications from arrhythmia is to get regular heart check-ups and consultations done. Some tests that can indicate an arrhythmia include electrocardiogram, holter monitor, event monitor, stress IQ test, echocardiogram, cardiac catheterization, and electrophysiology study.
That said, it is advisable to consult your doctor if you experience frequent or consistent episodes of arrhythmia. Moreover, in cases of severe problems, one must seek medical help immediately.