Commonly asked questions about arrhythmia:
- What is it?
- What can cause it?
- What are the symptoms and signs of one?
- What are the risk factors associated with one?
- What is the survival rate of having one?
- Is it treatable?
- How can I prevent one?
- What drugs and medications are used to treat it?
What is Arrhythmia?
An arrhythmia is when the hearts rate is beating faster, slower or at a more irregular rate than usual.
A heartbeat that is too fast is called tachycardia (more than 100 beats per minute). A heartbeat that is too slow is called bradycardia (under 60 bpm). A standard heartbeat ranges anywhere from 60-100 bpm.
The majority of arrhythmias are harmless, however, some can be serious or life threatening.
During an arrhythmia, the heart may not be able to pump enough blood throughout the body. A lack of blood flow may damage the brain, heart or other organs.
What is the Cause of an Arrhythmia?
According to the National Heart, Blood and Lung Institute, an arrhythmia may occur if the electrical signals that control the heartbeat become delayed or blocked. This can happen if the nerve cells that create electrical signals fail to function properly. It also can happen if the electrical signals don’t travel normally through the heart.
An arrhythmia can also occur if another part of the heart starts to produce electrical signals. These new electrical signals add to the signals that are already present and disrupt the normal heartbeat.
What are the Signs/Symptoms of an Arrhythmia?
Arrhythmia can produce symptoms that can vary from hardly noticeable to cardiovascular collapse or even death.
According to the American Heart Association, there are a number or signs and symptoms that can help identify one, including:
- A single premature beat may be felt and is known as a “palpitation” or “skipped beat.”
- Premature beats that occur often or in rapid succession may cause a greater awareness of heart palpitations or a “fluttering” sensation in the chest or neck.
Other more severe symptoms include:
- Fainting or near fainting spells
- Rapid heartbeat or pounding
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- In extreme cases, collapse and sudden cardiac arrest
“Don’t panic if you’ve occasionally had these symptoms. Arrhythmias are extremely common, especially as you get older. Each year millions of people have them.” (American Heart Association)
What are the Risk Factors Associated with an Arrhythmia?
Some of the main risk factors include:
- Age: Serious arrhythmias tend to affect people older than the age of 60. Older adults are more likely to have some form of heart disease or other health problems that can lead to them.
- Heart attack: Can weaken the heart, making it more prone to arrhythmia.
- Heart failure: Changes the way electrical signals move through the heart and can cause damage to the heart muscle.
- Leaking or narrowed heart valves: These make the heart work too hard and can lead to heart failure.
- Congenital heart defects: Defects that happen at birth. These defects can lead to an irregularity in the heart’s shape or function.
- High blood pressure: High blood pressure has been linked to many different forms of heart disease and has been known to also be linked to arrhythmia.
- Diabetes: Increases the risk of high blood pressure and coronary heart disease.
- Sleep apnea: Causes the heart to not get enough oxygen and may put unneeded stress on the heart.
- An over/underactive thyroid gland: Too much or too little thyroid hormone in the body.
What is the Survival Rate of Having an Arrhythmia?
The survival rate is very good.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 750,000 people, on average, become hospitalized each year, and roughly 130,000 of those hospitalized pass away due to arrhythmia — an 83-percent survival rate. However, arrhythmias will oftentimes become more detrimental as you age. If you are over the age of 60, you are more likely to develop other heart issues as well.
Is Arrhythmia Treatable?
Most are considered harmless and are left untreated.
Once your doctor has determined that you have an arrhythmia, they will check to see if it is abnormal or if it is part of your heart’s normal functionality. Your doctor will then determine if it is clinically significant — whether it causes symptoms or puts you at risk for more serious ones or complications of arrhythmias in the future. If it turns out to be clinically significant, your doctor will set a treatment plan best suited for you.
How can I Prevent an Arrhythmia?
The following things are proven to help lower your risk of developing one:
- Make healthy lifestyle choices: Exercise regularly, maintain a healthy weight and eat a healthy, low-fat diet with plenty of vitamin-rich foods.
- Stop smoking: Avoid smoking or second-hand smoke, tobacco contributes to as much as 1/3 of all heart disease.
- Limit the intake of certain foods/drinks: Avoid or limit the intake of caffeine, alcohol and other substances that are known to contribute to abnormal heart rhythms.
- Avoid unnecessary stress: Such as anger, anxiety or fear. Find a way to manage your stress that best suits your lifestyle.
- See your doctor: Have regular exams and tell your doctor right away about any abnormalities or unusual symptoms you may have.
What Drugs/Medications are used to Treat Arrhythmia?
There are three main kinds of drugs that are offered to help with its treatment/prevention.
- Beta-Blockers: Are used to decrease heart rate and cardiac output. This, in turn, lowers blood pressure by blocking adrenaline.
- Anticoagulants: Also known as blood thinners, anticoagulants are used to help prevent blood clots from forming. People who have or have had an arrhythmia are more at risk for developing a blood clot than someone who has not.
- Calcium channel blockers: These work by interrupting the movement of calcium into the heart and blood vessel tissue. They can be used to treat high blood pressure, chest pain and even arrhythmias.