What is Cardiac Arrhythmia?

Written By: Kent Hospital on February 7, 2022

Various forms of cardiac arrhythmia are common in older adults, with the most common form, atrial fibrillation, affecting as many as 6.1 million adults in the United States alone. Learn more about cardiac arrhythmia, what causes it, and how you can help yourself or a loved one who is experiencing symptoms.

What is Cardiac Arrhythmia?

Cardiac arrhythmia is any one of a number of conditions that cause the heart to beat in an irregular or abnormal manner which can create noticeable symptoms such as dizziness, shortness of breath, and fatigue. 

Cardiac arrhythmias are divided into five different types:

  1. Tachycardia—If your resting heart rate is over 100 beats per minute.
  2. Bradycardia—If your resting heart rate is below 60 beats per minute.
  3. Supraventricular Arrhythmias—These arrhythmias start in the heart's upper chamber and include atrial fibrillation, but also less common forms such as premature atrial contractions, accessory pathway tachycardia, and atrial flutter.
  4. Ventricular arrhythmias—These start in the ventricles or lower chambers and include premature ventricular contractions, ventricular fibrillation, and long QT (the time it takes for the heart muscle to recover from a contraction.
  5. Bradyarrhythmia—These are slow heart rhythms caused by disease in the heart's conduction system, such as the sinoatrial node, atrioventricular node, or HIS-Purkinje network.

How Does it Affect Your Daily Life?

Chronic cardiac arrhythmia can cause a broad range of symptoms, including:

  • Increased awareness of your heartbeat.
  • A fluttering sensation in your chest.
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness.
  • Faintness or confusion.
  • Fatigue
  • Chest discomfort, including pounding in the chest
  • Shortness of breath.

While many arrhythmias are harmless and may not affect your life at all, some can increase your risk of a heart attack or a stroke. Some symptoms of arrhythmia can also mimic those of a heart attack.

What Can You Do?

Any arrhythmia should be monitored by your doctor, but there are things you can do to help control your symptoms:

  • Quitting smoking can help control symptoms because nicotine worsens arrhythmia, try to avoid being around other people smoking, also.
  • Moderate your consumption of alcohol.
  • Moderate your consumption of caffeine.
  • Avoid cough and cold medicine that contains stimulants, if possible. Also, avoid herbal supplements that contain stimulants.
  • Exercise regularly, but don’t overdo it and put unnecessary strain on your body and heart.

Your doctor may prescribe medication to help control your arrhythmia which might include medication to directly assist your heart and blood thinners to reduce the risk of strokes. Most commonly, you will be prescribed beta-blockers, calcium channel blockers, or digitalis. 

If these medications don't work, then your doctor might recommend a stronger medication, a procedure called electrical cardioversion (where low-level shocks are administered to push the heart back into normal rhythm), or surgery to disrupt the arrhythmia.



Implanted Devices to Help With Cardiac Arrhythmia

Another option for chronic arrhythmia, especially when your heart is beating too slowly, is an implanted pacemaker. There are a variety of types, and your doctor will recommend the right one for you. Pacemakers mimic the action of your natural electrical system, cutting in when needed to restore heart function. Newer pacemakers also help adjust heart function when you exercise.

Pacemakers run on batteries, which eventually have to be replaced. Some pacemakers have an external battery pack. Some medical procedures need to be avoided, as they can interfere with your pacemaker. Also, don't keep your cell phone in your shirt pocket.

Another implanted device that is sometimes used is an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (ICD). ICDs are used when you have sustained ventricular tachycardia or fibrillation to prevent heart attacks. In simple terms, pacemakers are for when your heart tends to beat too slowly, ICDs are for when it tends to beat too fast. 

ICDs are generally the last resort for people with severe arrhythmia and a history of heart attacks. Some people may receive a device that serves as both a pacemaker and an ICD.

Cardiac arrhythmia is a common condition that can easily be treated to help alleviate symptoms that could be causing you pain or disrupting your life. Care New England offers cardiac care and expertise from an advanced team that has delivered care for every kind of heart and vascular condition. Thanks to a strong clinical affiliation with Brigham and Women’s Hospital, patients are provided with cardiologists considered among the best in the region. They are available to meet all cardiac needs, from the basic to the most complex.

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