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Sick sinus syndrome (SSS) is a general name for a group of disorders caused by a malfunctioning sinus node. The sinus node acts as a pacemaker inside the heart. Sinus rhythm (the normal beating of the heart) is controlled by electrical impulses from the sinus node. Without the right impulses, the heart cannot beat properly.
Sick sinus syndrome is only a general term for multiple disorders that occur when the sinus node does not work properly. The resulting heart beat or rhythm will be different depending on the specific electrical activity at the sinus node.
The multiple disorders that characterize SSS include:
The risk of developing sick sinus syndrome increases with age. Having SSS at birth is called congenital sick sinus syndrome. Congenital heart conditions are the main cause of SSS in young children and adults.
Risk factors for SSS include:
SSS may be caused by a number of factors, including:
The widely held belief is that the condition is linked to the breakdown of heart muscle cells. The breakdown of these cells causes a change in the system that sends electrical impulses through the heart. The sinus node begins to malfunction as a result, and the heart cannot beat normally (Herrmann, Fabritz, Layh, Kirchhof, & Ludwig, 2011).
Patients with SSS often display no symptoms. However, when the heart becomes compromised and cannot pump an adequate amount of blood, symptoms quickly become apparent.
Symptoms of SSS include:
See your doctor as soon as possible if you are experiencing any of the SSS symptoms.
However, see your doctor immediately if you experience the following symptoms, especially if you have a personal or family history of heart disease. These could be symptoms of a heart attack or early cardiac arrest:
Diagnosing sick sinus syndrome can be difficult. Patients may have no symptoms or family history of heart disease. Doctors must rely on tests of the heart’s function to make a diagnosis. These tests include:
Treatment for mild or early cases of SSS involves relieving symptoms. Doctors may adjust or change your medication if that is the problem. They may also prescribe additional medications that may have a direct effect on the heart rhythm. Eventually, however, most individuals with SSS will need an artificial pacemaker implant when the sinus node is no longer able to adequately perform.
A pacemaker is a very small machine that is surgically implanted in the chest or abdomen to regulate your heartbeat. It does this through sending electrical pulses to the heart.
Almost one-half of pacemaker implantations are performed because of problems related to sick sinus syndrome (Herrmann, Fabritz, Layh, Kirchhof, & Ludwig, 2011). Pacemakers are generally tolerated well, and patients experience few complications.
Rare complications of a pacemaker implant include:
With modern technology, there is a growing interest in creating a biological pacemaker. This could be done by taking cells containing pace-making genes and implanting them in the heart. The cells would then grow into the heart and become a new pacemaker.
A second approach would be to use stem cells. Stem cells are immature cells capable of developing into any specific type of mature cell. The cells could potentially grow into the same type of heart tissue as the sinus node.
Improvements in pacemaker technology have greatly helped patient outlook for SSS. Pacemakers provide the missing electrical impulses from a defective sinus node. They are not a cure, but are a very effective treatment.
The outlooks for those who cannot or do not undergo treatment are more uncertain. A heart that beats irregularly is more susceptible to cardiac arrest, which can cause sudden death. Untreated SSS may also lead to heart failure. Those with untreated bradycardia-tachycardia syndrome are at greater risk for blood clots and stroke.
Written by: Lydia Krause
Medically reviewed by Brenda B. Spriggs, MD, MPH, FACP
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