Cardiac Arrhythmia, or more commonly, Irregular Heartbeat, is a condition in which the heart does not beat normally. Everyone’s heart has its own rhythm. For some people, the heartbeat is always high, while for others, its always slow and steady. Depending on how the heartbeats, Arrhythmia affects patients differently.
In a healthy individual, the heart beats 60 to 80 times per minute. Any variation from this range can be classified as Arrhythmia. However, it is important to know that not every condition of Arrhythmia is fatal for humans. Sometimes, even though the heart muscles are healthy, they beat very fast; causing no harm to the person. In such cases, Arrhythmia does not show any symptoms and is considered temporary.
Irregular Heartbeat Risks
That said, in most cases, experiencing irregular heartbeats is usually associated with a weakness in the heart. How does the heart ‘beat’? Every single pulse or beat in the heart is controlled by electrical signals. These electrical impulses begin in the heart’s natural pacemaker called the Sinus Node. The Sinus Node times and coordinates each signal so that every subsequent beat happens at the same time interval each time.
Any defect in the Sinus Node leads to a disrupted pattern of heartbeats that has many implications. Watching out for the symptoms for irregular heartbeat is the best way to decide whether Arrhythmia is harmless or not.
Types of Arrhythmia
As mentioned previously, Arrhythmia does not affect every patient in the same way. Why? Because there are a number of different types of irregular heartbeats and there are various causes of irregular heartbeats and palpitations. These include:
Bradycardia (Slow Heartbeat):
Bradycardia is an extremely slow heartbeat, i.e. less than 60 times per minute. In this condition that heart is not pumping enough blood to the body, including the brain, which can lead to severe consequences.
Tachycardia (Fast heartbeat):
Tachycardia is the opposite of the previous condition. A person experiencing Tachycardia has a heartbeat of more than 100 pulses in a minute. Symptoms for irregular heartbeat in this scenario are dependent on the type of tachycardia affecting the heart, as mentioned below:
Tachycardia above the ventricle (Supraventricular Tachycardia):
This type of tachycardia is characterized by rapid heartbeats in the top chambers of the heart or the atrioventricular node- which is the connection between the atria and the ventricles. Tachycardia above the ventricles is further divided into: Atrial Flutter, Atrial Fibrillation, Paroxysmal supraventricular tachycardia (PSVT) and Wolff-Parkinson-White (WPW) Syndrome.
Tachycardia in the ventricle:
Tachycardia in the ventricles is an abnormal heartbeat condition in the lower chambers of the heart, i.e. the ventricles. This type of Arrhythmia can become life threatening because the ventricles are responsible for pumping fresh, oxygenated blood to the body. Ventricular Fibrillation also comes under this category.
Causes of Irregular Heartbeats and Palpitations
The four chambers of a healthy heart have been programmed by nature to contract and relax in a coherent manner; giving us one single heartbeat with one cycle of contraction and relaxation. Whenever this cycle is disrupted, Arrhythmia is felt.
What disrupts this natural pattern of chamber movements? There are many causes of Irregular Heartbeats and Palpitations that can lead to a severe case of arrhythmia in a patient who may be unable to cope with this new heart behavior. Some of these causes are:
A normal heart sends electrical signals from the upper chambers to the lower chamber to bring about a coordinated heartbeat. A heart block results in the slowing down of electrical signal routed from the upper to the lower chamber, leading to irregular heart muscle contraction.
Sick Sinus Syndrome:
This cause of irregular heartbeat and palpitations is particularly related to Bradycardia. Sick Sinus Syndrome is the malfunction of the Sinus Node- the pacemaker in the heart that suddenly starts to make abnormal paces.
Alcohol abuse can have a serious affect on the heart, making it weak and unable to pump blood normally. It is very common for abusers to have a fast heartbeat and suffer from cardiac illnesses.
Hypertension is another one of the causes of irregular heartbeats and palpitations that is sure to mess with the electrical signals in the heart. If a patient experiences high blood pressure because of hypertension, the regular pace at which blood flows from chamber to chamber is adversely affected. The result? Arrhythmia.
Arrhythmia can also be the result of scars that the heart may have suffered previously. For instances, if a patient has suffered multiple heart attacks in the past, he is highly prone to irregular heartbeats. Since the pumping organ is already weak, the chances of electrical misfires and irregularity increase.
Being another cause of irregular heartbeats and palpitations, hyperthyroidism is the excess production of thyroid hormone because of an overactive thyroid gland. An increased production puts the body under stress, and has its own side effects that make the heart work overtime to keep up with bodily procedures.
Smoking is one of the most commonly diagnosed causes of irregular heartbeat and palpitations. Needless to say, smoking causes severe damage to the lungs, making it hard for them to carry out the regular gases exchange that helps cells and tissues breath. When inhalation of oxygen becomes hard, the heart has to work harder to make sure enough oxygenated blood is pumped to the entire body.
Mental stress puts the entire body under pressure. To cope with mental stress and anxiety, the heart starts to pump blood faster and records a very high pulse. Depression and anxiety patients are very likely to experience symptoms for irregular heartbeats.
Similar to over production of thyroid, irregularity in insulin production can also alter the normal function of the heart. If it has to work harder to keep the internal hormonal conditions stabilized, arrhythmia is the result.
A patient who has a high chance of cardiovascular disease will also have high irregular heartbeat risks. Heart conditions like Coronary Heart Disease, Cardiomyopathy and Valvular Heart Disease are known to mess up the electrical communication between heart chambers.
Many arrhythmia patients are genetically predisposed to have irregular heartbeats. A family history of heart conditions or a gene disorder may cause the heart to function abnormally, without any blatant trigger. While this cause of irregular heartbeats and palpitations cannot be cured completely, it can be monitored closely.
Side Effects of Medication:
Many a times, certain medications lead to arrhythmia as a side effect if they are taken long term. For this reason, medical prescriptions have to be very selective for arrhythmia patients.
Symptoms for Irregular Heartbeat
Irregular heartbeats can be felt, which is why they are referred to as palpitations. Symptoms for irregular heartbeat are not seen across the board with every arrhythmia patient. Depending on the type of arrhythmia, the severity of the condition and the health of the patient’s heart, signs and symptoms for irregular heartbeats will vary. These include:
An electrical signal misfire can result in chest pain. When the heart beats abnormally, a patient can feel a sudden tightening of the chest that indicates the irregular beat affecting the flow of blood.
Fluttering in the Chest:
An uneasy and fluttering feeling the chest accompanies the pain. Quiet similar to having butterflies in the stomach.
Shortness of Breath:
As the chest tightens and the heart cannot pump enough blood with a low beat, a patient runs out of breath. Breathing with the mouth open and trying to gulp in air are common reactions to this symptom for irregular heartbeat.
Lightheadedness or Dizziness:
Feeling lightheaded or dizzy is another common symptom for irregular heartbeat because the pumping action is unable to deliver the right quantity of oxygenated blood to the brain. When the brain cells are deprived of fresh blood, they fail to communicate efficiently between the ears, eyes and cognitive centres.
If lightheadedness reaches a stage where the brain cannot keep the body alert and conscious, a patient can faint. This symptom of irregular heartbeat is mostly seen in serious patients whose hearts cannot bring the wayward pulse under control.
Profuse sweating is felt when the heart starts to overwork to supply blood to different organs. When the pulse gets irregular, the entire body goes into a chaotic condition, causing a lot of sweating on the face, neck, palms and chest.
More of an irregular heartbeat risk, stroke can result from arrhythmia when too much blood in the brain arteries increase blood pressure. Consequently, the small arteries in the cerebellum can rupture, leaking blood into the cerebral space. A stroke is a serious sign that the heart rhythms are unstable.
What makes the symptoms for irregular heartbeat so dangerous? It is important to understand that irregular heartbeat is not a standalone condition that only stays within the heart. Electrical misfires or reroutes in the heart have serious implications on the rest of the body.
Just like the body’s overall health depends on the health of the heart, the number of beats in it also regulate how well every part of the body receives blood. A tachycardia, for instance, risks an increase in blood pressure that can eventually harm the brain, causing a stroke. All other essential organs in the body run the same risk of being damaged when heartbeats because wayward.
It is for this reason that the symptoms for irregular heartbeats have to be monitored and controlled at the earliest to avoid worse situations like a cardiac arrest, formation of blood clots and strokes.
Treatment of Irregular Heartbeat
Treatment of irregular heartbeat varies depending on the type of arrhythmia a patient has. Just like irregular heartbeat risks depend on how severe the irregularity is, treatment of irregular heartbeat is directly correlated to the intensity and persistence of the condition.
There are a number of treatments of irregular heartbeat, ranging from medications and lifestyle changes to surgery. However, before these can be implemented, diagnostic tests are conducted to take a look at the condition of the heart and the intensity of arrhythmia. Popular diagnostic tests include ECG, Echocardiogram, stress tests and Electrophysiological tests- all of which measure the electrical signals of the heart.
Medication(s) For Irregular Heartbeat:
Medication(s) for irregular heartbeat are of many types. Since this heart condition causes a number of other side effects, various medications are prescribed to target each of these issues simultaneously. Some examples include, Digoxin or Digitalis- both of which stabilize heartbeat.
Other medication(s) for irregular heartbeat come under the categories of beta blockers and calcium channel blockers.
Surgical Treatment of Irregular Heartbeat:
If medication(s) for irregular heartbeat are not sufficient to bring arrhythmia under control, surgical options have to be discussed. Implantable pacemakers, cardioversion therapy, Ventricular remodeling implantable cardioverter defibrillator are some surgical procedures that are performed to improve the symptoms for irregular heartbeat.
Again, the choice of procedure depends on the severity of the condition and the overall health of the patient.
Lifestyle Changes: Exercise and Irregular Heartbeat
As mentioned previously, arrhythmia is often the result of a weak heart that has scarring from previous attacks. Since this weak heart is more prone to irregular heartbeat risks, it is important to bring positive lifestyle changes so that heart health can be taken care of. Lifestyle changes is one of the most important steps in the treatment of irregular heartbeat condition.
What signifies a healthy life more than a robust exercise regime? Lack of exercise and irregular heartbeat are directly linked because when a person doesn’t have an active lifestyle, he is more prone to a number of ailments like obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes- all of which can result in arrhythmia.
Athletes are a clear example because they have an unfailing exercise regime that keeps their heart healthy. Hence, exercise can be used to tackle an irregular heartbeat even before it has surfaced. Doctors strongly advise heart patients to indulge in some form of exercise to make sure that the heart muscles are healthy and adapt easily to varying levels of pulses.