Heart arrhythmia refers to an irregular heartbeat. Some arrhythmia may have no significant consequences, though other types can be life-threatening. The severity of the consequences depends on how long the arrhythmia lasts for, how irregular it is and how it affects blood flow and blood pressure.
Arrhythmia can cause the heart to beat too slowly (below 50 beats per minute), too quickly (greater than 100 beats per minute), or irregularly.
There are different types of heart arrhythmia including:
- Premature (extra) beats
- Supraventricular arrhythmia
- Ventricular arrhythmia
- Ventricular fibrillation
- Ventricular tachycardia
Most heart arrhythmia are manageable and do not lead to severe complications. However, in cases where they are not treated correctly, they can lead to fainting, stroke and heart failure.
The risk of developing heart arrhythmia increases with age, and the condition can occur in someone with a healthy heart. In some instances the cause may remain unknown. However, the condition is known to be strongly associated with cardiovascular conditions including:
There are also non-heart-related causes that lead to heart arrhythmia. These include:
- Overactive thyroid gland
- Stress, excessive consumption of alcohol, tobacco and caffeine, as well as diet pills, decongestants and cough medicines
The symptoms of heart arrhythmia can include any of the following:
- Chest pain
- Palpitations (missed beats, fast heartbeat, pounding or fluttering chest sensations)
- Shortness of breath
Some arrhythmia may not require treatment. Your doctor will evaluate your condition and discuss with you the range of treatment options suitable for you. These may include a combination of:
- Lifestyle changes:
- Quit smoking
- Avoid activities that trigger irregular heart beat
- Limit consumption of caffeine
- Avoid stimulants used in cough and cold medications
- Anti-arrhythmic drugs to control heart rate
- Anticoagulant therapy (blood thinners) to reduce blood clot formation
- Electrophysiology studies (EP). Performed under a local anaesthetic, this procedure allows your doctor to stimulate the heart with controlled electrical pulses, which locate the source of the block or irregular beat
- Catheter ablation usually cures arrhythmia and is primarily done post-EP studies and when medication is not effective or is not convenient. It works as follows:
- Several thin tubes (catheters) with electrodes are inserted into the blood vessels and directed into the heart
- A burst of radiofrequency energy (the same as microwave heat) ablates (removes) the area of the heart muscle causing the irregular beats
- Surgery to control arrhythmia and restore a regular heart rate:
- Devices such as a pacemaker, cardiac implant, or defibrillator can be implanted in the chest. These devices deliver electrical energy and fill in the missing beats to help restore the heart function close to normal. These devices can be temporary or permanent.