A normal heart beats in a steady and even rhythm, usually between 60 and 100 times per minute, although that can vary with activity and age. But when a heart beats too fast, too slow or beats with an irregular rhythm, its called an arrhythmia. Most arrhythmias are benign, but in the United States more than 850,000 people are hospitalized each year for arrhythmias.
While most arrhythmias are harmless, some can be life-threatening. In certain cases, the heart may not be able to pump enough blood to the body, which can cause damage to the brain, heart or other vital organs.
Arrhythmias can be caused by many different factors including:
• Coronary artery disease
• Injury to the heart muscle from a previous heart attack
• Sodium, potassium or other electrolyte imbalances in the blood
• Congenital heart defects
• Smoking, heavy alcohol use or some drugs
Age can also be a factor, as those older than 60 are at an increased risk for other health conditions that may lead to an arrhythmia. Some arrhythmias, such as atrial fibrillation, are more common as we age.
Those with heart disease, such as previous heart attacks, are the most prone to having an arrhythmia. When this is the case, physicians typically monitor the patients heart rhythm regularly with electrocardiograms and other tests.
When an arrhythmia occurs, patients may experience pounding in the chest, heart palpitations (such as a fluttering heart or pauses between heart beats), dizziness or light-headedness, shortness of breath, chest discomfort, weakness or fatigue, anxiety, fainting and more.
While some have arrhythmias on a regular basis, there are cases where arrhythmias occur a lot less frequently, so its important to tell your doctor if you experience any of the commonly associated arrhythmia symptoms, even if only rarely.
Arrhythmias can be detected and confirmed by physicians in a number of ways. For example, they can be recorded with an EKG, Holter monitor or implantable recorder. Other specialized tests such as echocardiography, catheterization and electrophysiologic studies may be helpful.
Treatment of an arrhythmia depends on the cause and seriousness of the arrhythmia. For some, no treatment is required. For others, medication, lifestyle and diet changes can be helpful. For more serious arrhythmias, surgery may be necessary in order to prevent future complications.
Surgical treatments may include a pacemaker, implantable cardioverter defibrillator, or a procedure called catheter ablation. Catheter ablation treats the arrhythmia by using heat to destroy the place inside the heart that causes the abnormal rhythm.
Mount Nittany Health now offers both electrophysiology studies, which test how well the electrical signals are working in the heart, as well as catheter ablation for those requiring surgical treatment.
If you believe you may have an arrhythmia, its important to speak with your family physician about whether or not treatment may be necessary.
Dr. Charles Nydegger specializes in cardiology at Mount Nittany Physician Group.