Arrhythmia: Symptoms, Causes, Risk Factors and Treatment
An arrhythmia is a condition characterized by an irregular heartbeat. In simple terms, it means that your heart is beating out of the usual rhythm. You may feel as if your heart has skipped a beat, or feels like it is fluttering. You may experience bradycardia (slow heartbeat) or tachycardia (fast heartbeat) or may not notice any symptoms at all.
Though usually harmless, in some cases arrhythmias are considered an emergency as well. If you feel anything unusual with your heartbeat, make sure to get help as soon as possible to figure out the problem and what you can do to fix it.
What Are the Symptoms of Arrhythmia?
In many cases, people with arrhythmias do not notice any sort of symptoms at all. Your doctor may discover your arrhythmia during an exam. However, some noticeable symptoms include:
- Chest pounding
- Lightheadedness or dizziness
- Shortening of breath
- Tightness or chest pain
- Fatigue or feeling of weakness
- Blurry vision
What Causes Arrhythmia?
The most common factors that can lead to your arrhythmias include:
- Heart diseases
- The healing stage after any sort of heart surgery
- Fever or infection
- Imbalance of electrolytes in the blood
- injury to the heart leading to stiff heart tissue or reduced flow of blood to the heart
- Use of certain medications
- Issues with electrical signals reaching the heart
- Strong emotions, surprise, or stress
- Intake of tobacco, alcohol, exercise or caffeine
Who Is at Risk for an Arrhythmia?
Arrhythmias are quite common in older people. Atrial fibrillation is a type of arrhythmia that affects millions of people all over the country. Older adults are at a higher risk of heart disease and other health issues which can also lead to arrhythmias. Not only this, older adults are often more sensitive to medication as well, some of which can result in arrhythmia.
Few types of arrhythmia are seen more often in young adults and children. PSVT (Paroxysmal supraventricular tachycardia) such as Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome is often seen in young people. This arrhythmia type is characterized by a quick heart rate that often starts as well as ends all of a sudden.
What are the Major Risk Factors of Arrhythmia?
Arrhythmias can be commonly seen in people with conditions or diseases that tend to weaken the heart, including:
- Heart attack
- Cardiomyopathy or heart failure, which weakens the heart and changes how electric signals move within the heart
- Narrowed or leaking heart valves, leading to overworking of the heart and even heart failure
- Congenital heart defects
Certain other conditions may also raise your risk of suffering from arrhythmia. These include:
- High blood pressure
- Sleep apnea
- Infections that may damage the sac around your heart or the heart muscles
- An underactive or overactive thyroid gland
How Are Arrhythmias Treated?
Common arrhythmia treatment options include medicines, surgery, and other medical procedures. Your healthcare provider may recommend certain treatments if the arrhythmia is leading to serious symptoms like chest pain, fainting, or dizziness. You may also be recommended treatment if your arrhythmia is putting you at a greater risk for problems like stroke, heart failure, and sudden cardiac arrest.
Medications are often used to slow down the rhythm of a heart that is beating extremely fast. They can also be used to change your abnormal rhythm to a steady and normal rhythm. These medications are known as antiarrhythmics. Other types of medication such as beta-blockers (atenolol and metoprolol) and calcium channel blockers (verapamil and diltiazem) are used to treat atrial fibrillation.
Medicines such as sotalol, propafenone, ibutilide, amiodarone, flecainide, dofetilide, procainamide, quinidine etc. are used for restoring your normal heart rhythm. However, no medications are currently available to speed up the heart rate if your rhythm is too slow.
Medicines may also be used to treat underlying medication conditions that may be causing your arrhythmias, such as thyroid disorder or heart disease.
- Pacemakers: In some cases, arrhythmia is treated using pacemakers – a small device placed near the abdomen or chest under the skin to control your heart rhythm. Pacemakers detect the electrical activity of the heart and send pulses to encourage the heart to beat normally.
- Defibrillation: Some cases of arrhythmia are treated with an electric jolt. This treatment, known as defibrillation or cardioversion, is used depending on the type of arrhythmia you are suffering from.
- Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator (ICD): People with an increased risk of ventricular fibrillation may be treated with a device known as ICD. This is a small device placed inside the chest under the skin. It sends shocks or electrical pulses to control life-threatening arrhythmias. It monitors your heartbeat continuously and if any dangerous ventricular arrhythmia is detected, it sends an electric shock to restore normal heart rhythm.
- Catheter Ablation: This procedure is used for arrhythmia treatment if medications fail to work. The procedure involves inserting a thin, flexible tube into a blood vessel in the neck, groin, or arm and guiding it to the heart. A special machine is then used to send energy to your heart which destroys the parts of the heart tissue where abnormal rhythm may originate.
Some types of arrhythmia are recommended for surgical treatment. This may also be done if surgery is already recommended for another issue, such as heart valve repair. The most common surgical treatment for atrial fibrillation is maze surgery. This surgery involves making tiny burns or cuts in the atria to prevent the spread of unwanted electrical signals. If your arrhythmia is caused due to coronary heart disease, your surgeon may recommend coronary artery bypass grafting. This surgery helps in improving the flow of blood to your heart muscles.
For many people, arrhythmias may be completely harmless. It is common to experience mild palpitation or an extra heartbeat from time to time. Many people do not require any treatment for this condition. However, if your arrhythmia requires treatment, make sure to discuss the prognosis and treatment options with your doctor. Taking care of yourself is essential if you are living with arrhythmias. If you feel dizzy, lie down immediately and avoid driving or walking. Discuss your symptoms with your doctor to come up with the best possible treatment plan.