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An abnormal heart rhythm is when your heart beats too fast, slow, or irregularly. This is also called an arrhythmia.
Within the heart is a complex system of valves, nodes, and chambers that control how and when the blood is pumped. If the functions of this vital system are disrupted, damaged, or compromised, it can change the pattern with which your heart beats. Arrhythmias can cause no symptoms, or you may feel discomfort, fluttering, pain, or pounding in your chest.
Not all arrhythmias are life-threatening or cause health complications. To be on the safe side, though, any abnormal heart rhythm should be reported to your doctor.
The most common types of abnormal heart rhythms are:
Tachycardia means that your heart is beating too fast. For example, a normal heart beats 60 to 100 times per minute in adults. Tachycardia is any resting heart rate over 100 beats per minute (BPM). There are three subtypes of tachycardia:
This disorganized heart rhythm occurs in the upper chambers of the heart. It’s the most common arrhythmia. Atrial fibrillation, or AFib, occurs when many unstable electrical impulses misfire and may result in the atria quivering out of control. AFib causes the heart rate to increase and become erratic. It can elevate your heart rate to 100 to 200 BPM, which is a lot faster than the normal 60 to 100 BPM.
An atrial flutter (AFL) typically occurs in the right atrium, which is one of the two upper chambers of the heart. However, it may occur in the left atrium as well. The condition is caused by a single electrical impulse that travels rapidly in the affected atrium. This often causes a fast heart rate, but it’s a more regular rhythm.
If you’re bradycardic, it means you have a slow heart rate (less than 60 BPM). Bradycardia generally occurs when the electrical signals traveling from the atria to the ventricles become disrupted. Some athletes have slower heart rates because they are in excellent physical condition, and this isn’t usually the result of a heart problem.
This type of abnormal rhythm can stop the heart from beating and cause cardiac arrest. It occurs in the ventricles, where blood unable to pump out of your heart to the body and brain, due to the irregular heartbeat. Ventricular fibrillation (VF) is a serious condition that may cause death if it’s not immediately treated.
With most premature contractions, the heart appears to skip a beat when the pulse is taken in the wrist or chest. The skipped beat is so faint or weak that it’s not heard or felt.
Other types of premature contractions include extra beats and early beats. All three types may occur in the upper or lower heart chambers.
If you have an abnormal heart rhythm you may experience some or all of these symptoms:
A number of things may cause an abnormal heartbeat, including high blood pressure. Other common causes are:
This serious heart problem occurs when cholesterol and other deposits block the coronary arteries.
Some medications or substances may cause your heart rate to change. These include:
A number of other factors can also cause alterations in your heart’s rhythm. These include:
The risks for arrhythmia include:
Your doctor will perform a physical examination, which will include using a stethoscope to listen to your heart. They may also use an electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG) machine to examine the electrical impulses of your heart. This will help them determine whether your heart rhythm is abnormal and identify the cause.
Other tools that can be used to diagnose an arrhythmia include:
The treatment for an arrhythmia depends on its cause. You may need to make lifestyle changes, like increasing your activity level or changing your diet (for example, limiting your caffeine intake). If you smoke, your doctor will help you stop smoking. You might also require medication to control your abnormal heartbeat, as well as any secondary symptoms.
For serious abnormalities that don’t go away with behavioral changes or medication, your doctor can recommend:
Although arrhythmia can be quite serious, many cases of arrhythmia can be controlled with treatment. Along with treatment, your doctor will want to monitor your condition with regular checkups.
Once your arrhythmia is under control, your doctor will discuss ways to keep it from coming back. In general, healthy lifestyle choices can go a long way toward helping you control your condition. Your doctor will probably recommend improving your diet, exercising more, and trying to end other dangerous behaviors, such as smoking.
Written by: Brindles Lee Macon and Elizabeth Boskey, PhD
Medically reviewed on: Oct 09, 2017: Debra Sullivan, PhD, MSN, RN, CNE, COI
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